Vilonia, Ark. official: Tornado is 'devastating to our city'

The police chief of Vilonia, Ark., which was battered for the second time in three years by deadly tornadoes on Sunday, said the damage is worse than any he has seen. 

"It's widespread,'' Vilonia police chief Brad McNew told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Monday. "Houses completely down to the foundations. A lot worse than it was three years ago."

In 2011 — three years ago Friday — Vilonia was hit with a tornado that killed three people. 

This time, McNew said, "it's just a wider area that it's hit. Of course, it went through the main part of town, so it's just devastating to our city."

The 2011 tornado, Vilonia mayor James Firestone told Matt Lauer, "was not nearly as bad as what we had this time. Before, we had a lot of roofs blown off, fences blown down, that type of thing. This time, houses are reduced to rubble, people's belongings completely destroyed, scattered, and it's a lot of debris to deal with. We have a big task in front of us trying to get this cleaned up." 

Tornadoes that ravaged the Plains and South on Monday have left at least 18 people dead, including 16 in Arkansas.

Vilonia resident Clayton Noble's home was completely destroyed. 

"Lost everything,'' Noble told Lauer. "We were on our way down there to reclaim something. Everything was gone." 

Noble and his family had to ride out the tornado in their home. 

"We took shelter in my daughter's closet,'' he said. "Me, my wife and three kids. I just did what I knew to do and just huddled down on top of them and held them. Everybody is OK as far as everybody that was in that closet." 

At least 18 people, including 16 in Arkansas, died from tornadoes that ripped through the Plains and South on Sunday. 

“What I’m seeing is something that I cannot describe in words,” Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock told NBC News. “It is utter and sheer devastation.”

McNew said there are six confirmed deaths from the city of Vilonia, which has a population of just over 3,800, but added, "I know that number is a lot higher." Bulldozers and backhoes will search the rubble for survivors Monday in what the police chief still considers a rescue mission. 

"As soon as it gets daylight we're going to go through searching one more time to see if we missed anybody,'' McNew said. 

"We're still in the process of trying to search all the debris and make sure that we have everyone accounted for,'' Firestone said. "Last night, of course, in the darkness, it was tough. (First responders) did a very thorough search to make sure that nobody was left hurt and laying in the rubble. That carried over way up into the morning. They're going to come back through again and do a more thorough search and hopefully sometime this afternoon we'll be letting folks back in to try to search through their belongings." 

There may have been even more casualties had it not been for an early warning system, according to McNew. 

"The storm warnings went out fairly early,'' he said. "I went to the tornado shelter myself with my family, which was a couple miles away from where we were at. A lot of people in the community were there, and so it did work. If you see the destruction that is here, even though we lost some lives, there's many lives that were saved because of the storm warning." 

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