JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Tornadoes damaged numerous homes, destroyed a fire station, briefly trapped people in a grocery store and ripped the roof off an apartment complex in Mississippi and Alabama. Two deaths were reported as the storm front continued to threaten parts of the Deep South on Wednesday.
The National Weather Service had warned that strong twisters capable of carving up communities over long distances were possible as the storm front moved eastward from Texas, threatening a stretch of the United States where more than 25 million people live.
The “threat for supercells capable of all severe hazards continues” near the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, forecasters said, after multiple tornado warnings were issued starting Tuesday afternoon and continued through the night.
Two people were killed in the Flatwood community just north of the city of Montgomery. “They were in their home that was struck by a tree due to the tornado,” said Christina Thornton, director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency.
Thornton said others in the area were injured, and search-and-rescue crews were able to check all the houses in the area by Wednesday morning. The sheriff’s office said a shelter was being opened at a nearby church for the affected residents.
Residents in several towns across Louisiana and Mississippi took cover as tornado sirens blared late Tuesday, and forecasters warned of the threat of strong twisters capable of tracking long distances on the ground as a severe weather outbreak erupted in the Deep South.
More than 25 million people were at risk from the vast storm system. The national Storm Prediction Center said in its storm outlook that affected cities could include New Orleans; Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee; and Birmingham, Alabama.
The NWS received reports of people trapped at a grocery store in Caledonia, Mississippi, just after 6 p.m. Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency Director Cindy Lawrence told WTVA-TV the people inside the grocery store made it out safely. Lawrence also said a family trapped in a house about a mile from the store escaped.
Additional reports of property damage near Columbus were received by the NWS, according to Lance Perrilloux, a forecaster with the agency.
Heavy rain and hail as big as tennis balls were also possible as forecasters said the weather outbreak was expected to continue into Wednesday.
In west Alabama, a suspected tornado damaged numerous homes in Hale County, according to storm damage reports to the National Weather Service. About 29,000 customers were without power early Wednesday morning.
And in the west Alabama town of Eutaw, video from WBMA-TV showed large sections of the roof missing from an apartment complex, where residents stood outside in the middle of the night.
“We’ve got power lines, trees just all over the road,” Eutaw Police Chief Tommy Johnson told WBRC-TV. “In the morning when we get a little daylight, we’re going to do a door-by-door search to make sure no one is trapped inside or anything like that.”
So far, though, there were no reports of injuries. “We haven’t got any reports of anyone hurt or anything,” he said.
Craig Ceecee, a meteorologist at Mississippi State University, peered out at “incredibly black” skies through the door of a tornado shelter in Starkville. He estimated that about 100 people had already arrived as a lightning storm persisted outside.
The Oktibbeha County Emergency Management agency is operating the shelter, about three miles from the university’s campus. Ceecee said the dome-shaped multipurpose facility is capable of withstanding 250 mph winds.
Before Tuesday’s storm, Ceecee built a database of Mississippi tornado shelters. He said there are several towns without any.
“I’ve had to go through events without (shelters), and trust me, they were scary,” Ceecee said.
In the small town of Tchula, Mississippi, hail stones crashed against the windows of City Hall, as the mayor and other residents took cover during a tornado warning. “It was hitting against the window, and you could tell that it was nice-sized balls of it,” Mayor Ann Polk said after the storm passed.
It’s rare that federal forecasters warn of major tornadoes with the potential for carving damages across long distances, as they did in Tuesday’s forecasts. Tornado watches covering much of Louisiana and Mississippi were announced due to “a particularly dangerous situation,” the NWS said.
“Supercells are expected to develop this afternoon and track northeastward across much of northeast Louisiana and central Mississippi,” the weather service said. “Parameters appear favorable for strong and long-tracked tornadoes this afternoon and early evening.”
All remaining classes at Mississippi State University’s main campus in Starkville switched to remote instruction Tuesday due to the weather. A Mississippi State women’s basketball game against the University of Louisiana-Monroe was to be played on campus, but the venue was closed to spectators. Alcorn State University and the University of Southern Mississippi Hattiesburg were closing early.
Some of Mississippi’s public school systems also closed early.
Flood watches were issued for parts of southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama, where 3 to 5 inches of rain could lead to flash flooding, the National Weather Service said.
Meanwhile, heavy snow was snarling traffic in some parts of the Upper Midwest.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tweeted Tuesday afternoon that its runways were closed due to fast snowfall rates and reduced visibility. Air traffic websites showed some inbound planes circling or diverting to other airports such as St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota. The National Weather Service reported nearly 4 inches of snow on the ground at the airport by noon