Powerful storms smashed buildings, splintered trees and downed power lines Monday around the Deep South, leaving one person dead as the dangerous mix of thunderstorms and suspected tornadoes raked the region in the week ahead of Christmas.
Forecasters issued multiple tornado watches and warnings and some cities opened shelters as a cold front collided with warmer air over northern Gulf Coast states. The National Weather Service said the severe weather threat could last into the early hours Tuesday.
The death Monday was attributed to an apparent tornado that struck a small residential area in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, but details were not immediately available, said Chief Deputy Calvin Turner. He said authorities feared others could be hurt in the area since crews were still trying to reach hard-hit areas where downed trees and power lines blocked roads.
“We’ve got damage at lots of places. We’ve got a church where the fellowship hall is torn all to pieces. Some homes are hit. Right now we’re having trouble just getting to places because of trees that are down,” Turner said.
I n nearby Alexandria, Louisiana, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of New Orleans, the storm left roads impassable and destroyed a car lot, said Capt. Phillip Jordan of the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Children in a church school were moved to the church before the tornado ripped off the school’s roof, said Cpl. Wade Bourgeois, spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department. Among the hardest-hit buildings was the Johnny Downs Sports Complex, which he said may have suffered “total damage.”
“Fortunately we have no reports of any deaths or serious injuries,” he said of the Alexandria area.
Bourgeois said some mobile homes and a few houses were damaged. Downed power lines left others stuck in homes or other buildings until rescuers could reach them, Bourgeois said.
“They weren’t pinned or dangerously trapped,” he said.
Meteorologist Donald Jones of the National Weather Service office in Lake Charles said it appeared the twister that hit in an area of Alexandria also struck the town of DeRidder on an “absolutely ridiculous” path estimated at 63 miles (101 kilometers) long.
“I don’t know what our records for the longest total in this area is, but that’s got to be pretty damn close to it,” he said.
The Storm Prediction Center reported two people suffered minor injuries from flying debris after storms moved into Mississippi, and multiple trees fell atop homes and vehicles in Edwards, east of Vicksburg. Schools were opened as shelters as forecasters began issuing tornado warnings in north Alabama.
There were no immediate reports of injuries there, but the weather service said the threat of severe weather would continue into the night hours as a cold front mixed with warmer air.
In Guntown, Mississippi, near Tupelo, an apparent tornado destroyed a church and damaged dozens of homes.
Pastor Carl Estes searched through the debris of Lighthouse Baptist Church for books, photos or any other salvageable items, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. The storm razed the church building to its foundation. Estes said no one was inside when it was demolished.
Church member Shane Keith told the newspaper he rushed to Lighthouse Baptist once the storm passed to fined the pews tossed around the hillside where the church once sat.
“I wanted to cry, I really did” Keith said. “I mean, I just got baptized last year and this means a lot to me, this place right here.”
Mississippi State Sen. Chad McMahn of Guntown said he toured a subdivision where an estimated 35 homes had been damaged.
As the storm system pushed into Alabama on Monday evening it toppled trees and power lines and kicked up more suspected tornadoes. Damage was reported in north Alabama when a possible tornado touched down. The Colbert County Emergency Management Agency said buildings were damaged in the Colbert Heights area and that multiple roads were blocked because of debris.
About 20,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana and Mississippi, and outages could spread as storms moved eastward.
Tornado watches extended from the Gulf Coast as far north as southern Tennessee, and additional watches and warnings were likely.
School systems in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi dismissed students early and canceled afternoon events and activities as a precaution because of the weather threat.
Forecasters said tornadoes, hail and winds blowing at 70 mph (115 kph) posed the greatest threat as a cold front moved across the region in an easterly direction. Storms could last until early Tuesday in the eastern areas, forecasters said.
Tornadoes in December aren’t unusual.
Monday was the 19th anniversary of a Southeastern tornado outbreak that produced a twister that killed 11 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Storms on Dec. 1, 2018, spawned more than two dozen tornadoes in the Midwest.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama, and McConnaughey reported from New Orleans. AP writer Jeff Amy contributed from Atlanta.