ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
NEW ORLEANS — Christmas Day along the Gulf Coast was filled with severe thunderstorms that brought drenching rains, high winds and damaging tornadoes while the nation's midsection dealt with freezing rain, sleet and snow that made for a sloppy and sometimes dangerous trek for holiday travelers.
Winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, where authorities warned would-be travelers to stay home. The National Weather Service tweeted that a tornado was headed toward downtown Mobile, Ala., and WALA posted on its website a photo from its tower cam of what looked like a funnel cloud moving toward the city.
Near McNeill, Miss., in the southwestern part of the state, winds from a storm, possibly a tornado, damaged a dozen homes and injured several people, none seriously, said Pearl River County emergency management agency director Danny Manley.
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.
Fog blanketed highways, including arteries in the Atlanta area where motorists slowed as a precaution. 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.
Nearly 350 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 70,000 people without power in east Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
And 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.
Meanwhile, blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky with predictions of 4 to 7 inches of snow. Much of Oklahoma and Arkansas braced under a winter storm warning of an early mix of rain and sleet forecast to eventually turn to snow. About a dozen counties in Missouri were under a blizzard warning from Tuesday night to noon Wednesday.
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 last 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; and those of Dec. 24-25, 1964, when two people were killed and about 30 people injured by 14 tornadoes in seven states.
Storms could bring winds up to 70 mph, heavy rain, more large hail and dangerous lightning in Louisiana and Mississippi, said meteorologist Mike Efferson at the weather service office in Slidell, La.
Furthermore, warm, moist air colliding with a cold front could produce dangerous straight-line winds.
The storm was moving quickly as it headed into through Louisiana and Mississippi and onto Alabama in the early evening.
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant urged residents to have a plan for any severe weather.
"It only takes a few minutes, and it will help everyone have a safe Christmas," Bryant said.