Deadly Storms Sweep South, Create Travel Chaos

6:31 AM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
A house in Tioga, La., is severely damaged after an apparent tornado tore through the area Tuesday.(Photo: Melinda Martinez, AP via USA Today)
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Staff and Wire Reports (USA Today)

At least three people were killed as tornadoes and severe weather struck the southern U.S., as the bad weather migrated toward the Northeast and threatened to cause further disruptions on one of the heaviest travel days of the year.

More than 600 flights nationwide were canceled and more than 5,000 delayed on Tuesday, according to the flight tracker Many were out of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

As of shortly after 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, 372 flights had been cancelled and 311 delayed across the U.S.

Earlier, holiday travelers in the nation's much colder midsection battled treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions from a line of fast-moving storms that the National Weather Service Wednesday said were continuing to march eastward.

The storms were blamed for three deaths, and a Christmas Day twister outbreak left damage across the Deep South.

More than 100,000 customers were without power in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In Mobile, Ala., a tornado or high winds damaged homes, a high school and a church, and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown.

Rick Cauley, his wife, Ashley, and two children were hosting members of both of their families. When the sirens went off, the family headed down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School.

"As luck would have it, that's where the tornado hit," Cauley said. "The pressure dropped and the ears started popping and it got crazy for a second."

High winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, and the Highway Patrol there said a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy U.S. Highway near Fairview.

At least three tornadoes were reported in Texas, though only one building was damaged, according to the National Weather Service. Tornado watches were in effect across southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

Trees fell on a few houses in central Louisiana's Rapides Parish but there were no injuries reported, said sheriff's Lt. Tommy Carnline. Near McNeill, Mississippi, a likely tornado damaged a dozen homes and sent eight people to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries, said Pearl River County emergency management agency director Danny Manley.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency in the state, saying eight counties have reported damage and some injuries.

Blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky with predictions of 4 to 7 inches (10 to 17.5 centimeters) of snow.

And the National Weather Service has winter storm and blizzard warnings in effect from Oklahoma and Texas all the way to Maine.

Still, senior meteorologist Henry Margusity said that as the powerful winter storms shifted east, the threat of tornadoes likely would wane.

The holiday may conjure visions of snow and ice, but twisters this time of year are not unheard of. Ten storm systems in the last 50 years have spawned at least one Christmastime tornado with winds of 113 mph (182 kph) or more in the South, said Chris Vaccaro, a National Weather Service spokesman in Washington, via email.

The most lethal were the storms of Dec. 24-26, 1982, when 29 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi killed three people and injured 32.

Mobile was the biggest city hit by a twister on Tuesday. The storms knocked down countless trees, blew the roofs off homes and left many Christmas celebrations in the dark.

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