There were no immediate reports of injuries or fatalities, said Renee Preslar, a spokeswoman with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
The National Weather Service said a tornado passed directly over its offices at the North Little Rock Airport. Preslar said the state had received reports of damage at the airport.
Gregory Greene, 39, said he was outside a restaurant when the tornado hit.
"I saw debris flying around in a circle when I was about to go in and pick up my girlfriend from work," said Greene. "Stuff was going around in circles.
"About that time, it pushed her up against the building and knocked me down and pushed me under that truck," Greene said. While under the truck, he said the storm flipped a car in the next parking space.
"I thought I was going to die," said Greene, whose right elbow was scraped raw.
The National Weather Service said the storm damaged a car dealership and a mobile home park near Benton, southwest of Little Rock, and downed power lines and trees farther southwest on I-30. After hitting Little Rock the storm moved into the city's northeastern suburbs.
Another storm was reported later Thursday evening near Hot Springs, about 40 miles southwest of Little Rock. Preslar said the Hot Springs area experienced flash floods and some fires from lightning strikes.
As early as last weekend, forecasters had warned of a severe weather outbreak Thursday night.