2:48 p.m. update: Mayflower residents working to overcome devastating damage
James Guiden initially resisted his wife's suggestion they move to the bathroom of their Mayflower home to protect them from a possible tornado Sunday night.
Then came what sounded like the roar of a freight train, and the couple dashed out of bed and into the into the bathtub.
"And it wasn't 5 seconds later that the walls and the roof just opened up," Guiden recalled Tuesday afternoon, standing just a few feet from the wreckage of his home and the unbroken bathtub that may have saved his life.
Guiden, 43, was one of a number of Mayflower residents joined Tuesday by volunteers, utility workers and state officials as the Faulkner County city worked to recover from a deadly tornado that left a devastating trail of damage.
The Guidens emerged unhurt from their home on Arkansas 365 despite the massive damage the tornado inflicted around them. Several nearby homes were also demolished; numerous large trees were uprooted; tractor trailers a block north were strewn about, flipped over and on top of one another; and Guiden's wife found a man's body in a field just behind their house soon after the tornado had moved on.
Just north of the Guidens' home, Bob VanByssum was also working to salvage what he could from a destroyed home.
VanByssum, an industrial maintenance worker at a bakery, was watching television in his front room when the signal went out and the tornado sirens started blaring.
He and his wife grabbed their dog and took shelter in the bathroom. It wasn't long before the tornado ripped off the roof and blew out the walls in front of the home.
"[I was] pretty much scared to death," VanByssum said Tuesday. "I thought I was going to die. Just praying for it to be over with."
The couple had to dig their way out of the home, but like the Guidens, escaped without injury. Some possessions were salvageable, VanByssum said, but others were destroyed or lost to the strong winds.
"It's just hard to believe something like this could happen to you," he said. "It's a terrible thing to happen to anybody."
Guiden said numerous volunteers who offered their help and his strong faith were helping him through the ordeal. Still he marveled at how much power the storm unleashed on his city.
"Just to see everything that was in place and ... it's just gone," he said, surveying the damage around him. "There was a building there and it's gone, there was a building there and everything's just disappeared."
11:10 a.m. update: Major disaster area declared in Faulkner County
President Barack Obama has declared Faulkner County a major disaster area, a designation that provides federal resources for the areas afflicted by Sunday's tornado.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman said the major disaster designation provides for individual assistance to tornado victims as well public assistance for debris removal, infrastructure repair and more.
Sen. Mark Pryor, who along with the rest of Arkansas' congressional delegation wrote a letter requesting the status, said on Twitter that it will allow the state "to begin rebuilding."
"Reminds us of [importance] of supporting disaster relief funding," he wrote.
9:51 a.m. update: The 'worst hour probably ever'
Greg Bradley was driving home to Vilonia from Dallas on Sunday night when the radio station relayed news of a possible tornado sweeping through Faulkner County.
Bradley, 43, quickly dialed his daughter, who had ventured with a friend to Bradley's Cemetery Road home and was hunkered down there as the storm closed in.
Then the line went dead.
Bradley, knowing only that his daughter was in a possible tornado and no longer reachable, stepped on the gas, racing back as fast as he could and even considering calling 911 if police tried to pull him over. It didn't come to that, but he would have told them he didn't plan to stop.
"I don't want to describe it because I get emotional," Bradley recalled Tuesday. "But it was bad. It was bad. Worst hour probably ever."
After that hour passed, Bradley was reconnected with his daughter. She was uninjured and her friend had suffered only scratches. But the house was gone.
"She got out all right. I don't know how," Bradley said, motioning to the sea of mangled boards, strewn insulation and storm debris from which the two emerged. "I mean, I know how. God took care of her. But as you can see, it's pretty bad."
On Tuesday, Bradley and a host of friends were back at the property, sifting through the wreckage and seeing what they could salvage.
"Unbelievably, I've found some stuff," he said. "I didn't figure we'd find anything. I just figured we'd pile it up and burn it."
8:45 a.m. update: Cleanup continues for families hit by tornado
The cleanup effort after a devastating tornado in Vilonia entered a second day Tuesday with displaced victims, family members, volunteers and utility workers returning to demolished homes and businesses soon after the sun came up.
Among them was Zach Lee, 23, who was combing through the wreckage of his parents' Cemetery Road home for anything he could salvage.
"Mostly looking for family things that have meant things for a very long time," he said. "We found quite a bit yesterday, seeing how much more we can done today."
After a backhoe cleared away a car that had been thrown atop the kitchen, Lee and friends accessed a cabinet they couldn't reach before. It revealed some dishes, envelopes of bank statements and assorted cans. What was unbroken was taken to a pile for saving and the rest thrown aside.
The demolished home was just the first stop of three for Lee on Tuesday and in the coming days. His brother's home across the street was also destroyed, and so was his grandmother's home nearby. Lee's brother was at work, but the rest of the family rode out the tornado in a storm cellar, emerging to find their homes gone.
"It's hard to get a grasp on exactly what you feel at any given time," Lee said. "Basically this town was my entire childhood. I lived here for 21 years on this very road before I moved out. So seeing it like this is heartbreaking."
6:29 a.m. update: Tornado surveys to continue
A National Weather Service survey of the destruction path left by Sunday's tornado is expected to continue Tuesday and Wednesday as officials work to determine its strength.
The devastating tornado leveled homes and businesses in central Arkansas, killing at least 15 people in Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties.
John Robinson, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said crews began surveying the damage Monday and determined the tornado was at least an EF3, which would have winds up to 165 mph.
The damage survey was to continue on the ground Tuesday and then by air on Wednesday with a final determination on the tornado's strength planned to be made later that day, Robinson said in an email.
Robinson said the damage surveyed Monday in Faulkner County included numerous "severely mangled vehicles."
"This is the greatest number of massively damaged vehicles that I have seen in a long time," he said. "We probably saw hundreds of them today."