MOBILE — A Christmas Day twister outbreak left damage across the Deep South while holiday travelers in the nation’s much colder midsection battled sometimes treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions.
Conditions were volatile throughout the afternoon and into the night with tornado warnings in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The storms were blamed for two deaths, several injuries, and left homes from Louisiana to Alabama damaged.
In Mobile, a tornado or high winds damaged homes and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown about nightfall, said Nancy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Mobile County Commission. WALA-TV’s tower camera captured a large funnel cloud headed toward downtown.
“We haven’t verified what it was, but we have an area that we heard has damage to homes,” she said.
Mobile Fire-Rescue officials tweeted Murphy High School in downtown was damaged and crews were going door-to-door in the hardest hit areas to check for injuries. No injuries were immediately confirmed hours after the funnel cloud was spotted.
Scott Rye, a senior warden at Trinity Episcopal Church in Mobile, said a large section of the roof was missing and the front wall of the parish hall building facing Dauphin Street was destroyed in the storm.
“Thank God this didn’t happen last night,” Rye said. The building was crowded Monday night for Christmas Eve services.
Rye said Mobile Fire-Rescue officials told church members Tuesday night to leave the complex because it was structurally unsound. He said a number of the mature oaks lining Dauphin Street were downed by the tornado.
As of 9 p.m., 31,000 customers were without power statewide — about 26,000 of them in Mobile, Alabama Power reported. Officials said there were also pockets of customers without power in Demopolis, Haleyville and Greensboro.
After hitting Mobile, National Weather Service officials reported the storm headed toward Grove Hill, which is about 80 miles north of Mobile.
The storm blew a barn and a silo across U.S. 43 a few miles outside of Grove Hill and flipped a vacant mobile home, Clarke County Emergency Management Director Roy Waite said. Trees and power lines were down and workers were trying to fix a natural gas leak at a small manufacturing plant.
Mary Cartright said she was working at the Fast Track convenience store in the town Christmas evening when the wind started howling and the lights flickered, knocking out the store’s computerized cash registers.
“We’ve had some pretty heavy weather,” Cartright said. “Our cash registers are down so our doors are closed.”
Brian Daly, a Mobile-based National Weather Service meteorologist, said forecasters anticipated EF2 and EF3 tornadoes. On Dec. 20, an EF1 tornado hit Mobile and left 54,700 people without power. National Weather Service officials Tuesday night said information on top wind speeds was not available, and a damage assessment might not be completed until today.
Meanwhile, blizzard conditions were hitting the nation’s midsection.
Winds toppled a tree onto a pickup in Houston, killing the driver. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, and the Highway Patrol said a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy highway near Fairview.
The snowstorm that caused numerous accidents pushed out of Oklahoma late Tuesday, carrying with it blizzard warnings for parts of northeast Arkansas, where 10 inches of snow was forecast. Freezing rain clung to trees and utility lines in Arkansas and winds gusts up to 30 mph caused about 71,000 customers to lose electricity.
Blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky with predictions of 4 to 7 inches of snow.
Trees fell on a few houses in central Louisiana’s Rapides Parish but there were no injuries reported, and crews were cutting trees out of roadways to get to people in their homes, said sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Carnline. Near McNeill, Miss., 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.
Fog blanketed highways, including arteries in the Atlanta area, which was expected to be dealing with the same storm system on Wednesday. In New Mexico, drivers across the eastern plains had to fight through snow, ice and low visibility.
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.
More than 400 flights nationwide were canceled by the evening, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.com. More than half were canceled into and out of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport that got a few inches of snow.
Christmas lights also were knocked out with more than 100,000 customers without power in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
In Louisiana, quarter-sized hail was reported early Tuesday in the western part of the state and a WDSU viewer sent a photo to the TV station of what appeared to be a waterspout around the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in New Orleans.
There were no reports of crashes or damage.
Some mountainous areas of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains could get up to 10 inches of snow, which would make travel “very hazardous or impossible” in the northern tier of the state from near whiteout conditions, the National Weather Service said.
The holiday may conjure visions of snow and ice, but twisters this time of year are not unheard of. Ten storm systems in the past 50 years have spawned at least one Christmastime tornado with winds of 113 mph 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.