JACKSON, Mississippi – Residents of several towns in Louisiana and Mississippi took shelter as tornado sirens sounded late Tuesday, and forecasters warned of the threat of powerful tornadoes capable of tracking long ground distances as an outbreak of severe weather broke out in the Deep South.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or serious damage. Tornado warnings were issued Tuesday afternoon and continued into the night as severe thunderstorms rolled from eastern Texas to Georgia and as far north as Indiana.
The National Weather Service confirmed that tornadoes touched down in Mississippi on Tuesday evening and that Alabama was in the forecast path of the storms overnight.
More than 25 million people were at risk from the vast storm system. The National Storm Prediction Center said in its storm forecast that affected cities could include New Orleans; Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee; and Birmingham, Alabama.
The NWS received reports of people being trapped in a grocery store in Caledonia, Mississippi, just after 6 p.m. Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency Director Cindy Lawrence told Tupelo’s NBC affiliate WTVA-TV that those inside the grocery store got out safely. Lawrence also said a family trapped in a house about a mile from the store escaped.
Other reports of property damage near Columbus have been received by the weather service, according to Lance Perrilloux, an agency forecaster.
Heavy rain and hail as big as tennis balls were also possible, as forecasters said the weather outbreak was expected to continue through Wednesday.
Mississippi State University meteorologist Craig Ceecee observed “incredibly dark” skies through the door of a tornado shelter in Starkville. He estimated around 100 people had already arrived as a thunderstorm continued outside.
The Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Agency operates the shelter, about three miles from the college campus. Ceecee said the versatile domed facility was able to withstand 250mph winds.
Ahead of Tuesday’s storm, Ceecee built a database of Mississippi tornado shelters. He said there were several towns without any.
“I had to go through (homeless) events and believe me they were scary,” Ceecee said.
In the small town of Tchula, Mississippi, hailstones crashed through the windows of City Hall as the mayor and other residents took cover during a tornado warning. “It was banging against the window, and you could tell it was good sized balls,” Mayor Ann Polk said after the storm passed.
It’s rare for federal forecasters to warn of major tornadoes with the potential to cause long-range damage, as they did in Tuesday’s forecast. 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 northeast across much of northeast Louisiana and central Mississippi,” the weather service said. “Parameters appear favorable for strong and prolonged tornadoes this afternoon and early evening.”
The storm’s most intense wave is expected to cross the Mississippi between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., said Sarah Sickles, a National Weather Service forecaster in Jackson, the state capital.
“Multiple rounds of severe thunderstorms – some capable of long-track tornadoes with EF3+ damage potential – will be possible this afternoon through tonight over parts of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Midtown region. south,” the Norman, Oklahoma-based storm prediction center said. .
Tornadoes with an EF3 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Scale can produce wind gusts of up to 165 mph.
All remaining classes at Mississippi State University’s main campus in Starkville transitioned to remote learning on Tuesday due to 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 have been 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 hampering traffic in parts of the Upper Midwest.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tweeted Tuesday afternoon that its runways were closed due to rapid snowfall and reduced visibility. Air traffic websites showed some incoming planes turning 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 as of noon.