Low-level thunderstorm passes over Hampton, Arkansas in April 2014.
A low-level thunderstorm passes over Hampton, Arkansas.Reuters

Tornadoes in a storm system that originated in the US Midwest and plains have claimed at least 17 lives and caused widespread damage to settlements and towns.

Faulkner County Sheriff spokesman said that the storm has caused a "mass casualty situation" in Vilonia, Arkansas, as it swept across the town.

The highest casualties were reported from central Arkansas, where at least 16 people died as a tornado battered many of the suburbs surrounding Little Rock, though it bypassed the densely populated capital city.

A tornado chaser in Mayflower, Arkansas, said that he saw a twister, that grew as large as half a mile, passing through a national highway at 7:30pm local time [12:30am GMT].

The half-mile tornado razed buildings to the ground, uprooted trees and dumped a long trail of debris along its path, besides leaving tens of thousands in central Arkansas without power.

The twisters also touched down in the states of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

Two hours before Arkansas was struck, a separate twister ripped through the Oklahoma settlement of Quapaw, inhabited by about 900 people. At least one person was killed and six others were reported injured.

"Looks like about half of town got extensive damage as well as the fire department," County Emergency Management director Joe Dan Morgan told Fox News.

Later, the tornado moved towards Kansas and hit Baxter Springs, injuring a dozen people. No deaths were reported from the small town with a population of about 4,200.

One of the many wayward twisters also passed by the city of Joplin in Missouri, which was devastated in a 2011 tornado, when about 161 people died and a large area of the city was flattened. This time, however, the tornado barely touched the city before moving on.

The twisters were accompanied by powerful winds, up to 60mph, and hail storms which might affect surrounding areas not exactly trailed by the tornadoes.

Hail stones as big as "baseballs" have been forecast for the region, even as golf ball-sized hail has already been reported at Overland Park in Kansas.

Louisiana and Mississippi are on high alert for flash floods, while severe thunderstorm warnings for winds and hail storms have been issued in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.