At least 50 million people from Illinois to the Gulf Coast were at risk Thursday of tornadoes, large hail or wind damage in what forecasters said was expected to be the first significant tornado outbreak of the season.
The tornado risk covered at least seven states. The cities under threat included Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Joplin, Mo., which was all but leveled by a tornado that killed 161 people three years ago.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for central and western Arkansas and southern Missouri through 6 p.m. ET, but forecasters said the severe weather risk would extend well into the night.
The Mississippi and Ohio Valleys are entering the most dangerous part of the year for tornadoes. Because of the unusually long and cold winter, the country is behind is average pace for twisters this year. Seventy have been reported, compared with an average of 244 by early April.
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