MOBILE, Ala. — A powerful storm system that erupted Christmas Day with Gulf Coast tornadoes and snow in the nation’s midsection headed for the Northeast on Wednesday, spreading blizzard conditions that slowed holiday travel.
The death toll rose to six with car accidents on snow and sleet-slickened highways in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Post-Christmas travelers braced for flight delays and a raft of weather warnings for drivers, a day after rare winter twisters damaged buildings in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Snow blew across southern Illinois and southern Indiana early Wednesday as the storm tracked up the Ohio River valley toward the Eastern seaboard and New England.
There were whiteout conditions in parts of southwestern Indiana, where 6 inches or more of snow had fallen by midmorning around Evansville. State police reported dozens of vehicles stuck after not being able to get up a hill on a central Indiana highway, while some roads around Evansville were impassable with wind gusts around 30 mph.
A blizzard warning was in effect for much of the state’s southern two-thirds and more than a dozen counties issued travel watches asking residents to make only essential driving trips.
Indianapolis had 7 inches on the ground by 10 a.m. after receiving as much as 3 inches of snow in a single hour, said John Kwiatkowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis. He said the storm’s winds were just high enough to classify the storm as a blizzard, making it one of the strongest snowstorms in years to strike central and southern Indiana.
“The way I’ve been describing it is as a low-end blizzard, but that’s sort of like saying a small Tyrannosaurus rex. Just to become a blizzard is quite an accomplishment. And it’s sure a heck of a lot more than we’ve seen,” he said.
In Arkansas, the storm left more than 189,000 customers without electricity Wednesday, utility Entergy Arkansas said.
Severe thunderstorms were forecast for the Carolinas while a line of blizzard and winter storm warnings stretched from Arkansas up the Ohio River to New York and on to Maine.
State police reported scores of accidents on snow-covered highways in central and western Maryland, where forecasters predicted up to 5 inches of snow in most counties west of the Baltimore-Washington area, followed by freezing rain.
Thirty-four tornadoes were reported in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during the outbreak Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
Rick Cauley’s family was hosting relatives for Christmas when tornado sirens went off in Mobile. Not taking any chances, he and his wife, Ashley, hustled everyone down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile’s Murphy High School in Mobile.
It turns out, that wasn’t the place to head.
“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.” They were all fine, though the school was damaged, as were a church and several homes, but officials say no one was seriously injured.
Camera footage captured the approach of the large funnel cloud.
Mobile was the biggest city hit by numerous twisters. Along with brutal, straight-line winds, the storms knocked down countless trees, blew the roofs off homes and left many Christmas celebrations in the dark. Torrential rains drenched the region and several places saw flash flooding.
More than 900 flights around the U.S. were canceled as of Wednesday midday, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.com. The cancelations were mostly spread around airports that had been or soon would be in the path of the storm.
Holiday travelers in the nation’s much colder midsection battled treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions from the same fast-moving storms. In Arkansas, highway department officials said the state was fortunate the snowstorm hit on Christmas Day when many travelers were already at their destinations.
Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway died Wednesday when the vehicle crossed the center line and struck an SUV head-on. In Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol said a 76-year-old Wisconsin woman died Tuesday when the car she was riding in was hit head-on by a pickup truck on Interstate 44.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol had earlier reported that a 28-year-old woman was killed in another crash Tuesday on a snowy highway. The storm’s winds were blamed Tuesday for toppling a tree onto a pickup truck in Texas, killing the driver, and another tree onto a house in Louisiana, killing a man there.
Trees fell on homes and across roadways in several communities in southern Mississippi and Louisiana. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, saying eight counties reported damages and some injuries.
It included McNeill, where 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.
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 whipped them around, causing about 71,000 customers to lose electricity for a time.
Christmas lights also were knocked out with more than 100,000 customers without power for at least a time in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
Blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky up to Cleveland with predictions of several inches to a foot of snow. By the end of the week, that snow was expected to move into the Northeast with again up to a foot predicted
Jason Gerth said the Mobile tornado passed by in a few moments and from his porch, he saw about a half-dozen green flashes in the distance as transformers blew. His home was spared.
“It missed us by 100 feet and we have no damage,” Gerth said.