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Arkansas tornado: At least 17 people killed as twisters tear through heart of America

Several twisters wreaked huge destruction at the start of this year's devastating tornado season

At least 17 people have been killed after several tornadoes ripped paths of destruction through the central and south United States on Sunday.

A colossal tornado carved an 80-mile trail of devastation through central Arkansas, claiming the lives of at least 16 people.

The twister was the largest of several generated by a powerful storm system that marked the start of this year’s tornado season.

Arkansas authorities said at least ten people were killed in Faulkner County, as well as five people in Pulaski County and one person in White County.

Another tornado left one person dead in Quapaw, Oklahoma, on Sunday before trailing northward into Kansas, where it destroyed dozens of homes in the city of Baxter Springs.

Tornadoes also touched down in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

Forecasters had warned for days that violent weather would strike over the weekend but forewarning could not protect people from the natural disasters.

Winds ripped houses off their foundations and flipped cars on top of the rubble in the small town of Vilonia in central Arkansas' Faulkner county, one of the worst-hit communities, television pictures showed.

Rescuers faced a grim search through mounds of rubble in Vilonia and a spokesman for the County Sheriff's office said there was a “mass casualty situation”.

US Representative Tim Griffin told Reuters: “An entire neighbourhood of 50 or so homes has been destroyed. Many homes are completely gone except the foundation ... There is more devastation like this in other parts of Arkansas.”

Cable television's Weather Channel showed videotape of mangled, overturned cars, some with people still inside, on a stretch of Interstate 40, a major thoroughfare in and out of the state's capital. Motorists searched crushed vehicles for victims while others stood dazed on the road. Authorities closed the route.

A tornado hit the east side of Mayflower at around 7.30pm, killing at least one person, tearing up trees and bringing down power lines, making it difficult for the emergency services to find stricken areas in the dark, according to officials.

The Arkansas National Guard was deployed to help out in the state.

At least one other person was killed in a tornado in the small town of Quapaw, in the northeast corner of neighboring Oklahoma, according to Ottawa County Sheriff's Department spokesman Derek Derwin.

That twister was spotted in the town 200 miles northeast of Oklahoma City at about 5:45pm, according to the weather service.

Media and the National Weather Service reported that two people were killed.

The Missouri Highway Patrol reported a tractor-trailer was blown onto its side on Interstate 70. No one was injured.

Additional reporting by agencies