South cleans up from tornadoes as blizzards advance north

Visibility on I-94 in the Bismarck, N.D., Mandan area is greatly reduced due to blowing snow across the roadway in this view of westbound traffic on the Grant Marsh Bridge over the Missouri River on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)
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By JAKE BLEIBERG and KEVIN MCGILL

Associated Press

KEITHVILLE, La. (AP) — Communities from Texas to Florida commenced assisting survivors and cleaning up Thursday after tornadoes left scattered destruction and at least three people dead across the South. To the north, blizzards continued to pound the Midwest as more ice and snow headed toward New England.

Three straight days of volatile weather in the South continued Thursday as a possible tornado wrecked a building housing a cotton gin in rural Georgia and forecasters issued a stream of tornado warnings across the Florida peninsula.

The same storm front spawned twisters as it marched from central Texas across Louisiana, where all three storm deaths were confirmed, before destroying farm buildings in Mississippi and tearing roofs off other buildings in Alabama.

In Union Parish, Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, volunteers stocked a gymnasium with donated clothing and other supplies for dozens whose homes were badly damaged or destroyed.

“It shows that people love you,” said Patsy Andrews, who survived the storm hunkered in a bathtub with her three children. “It shows that people care.”

Andrews teared up as she recounted how winds blew open her front door early Wednesday in the Union County community of Farmerville as tornado alerts sounded. Windows started breaking with a popping noise like gunfire, she said, as the family crawled into the bathroom.

“The only thing we know to do was just crying, we was screaming, just calling on Jesus,” Andrews said. She added: “We all grabbed each other, we jumped in the tub. All we could do was just pray. It was very devastating.”

A few others caught in the storm’s path weren’t so fortunate.

A man who was out buying groceries Tuesday when a suspected tornado struck rural Keithville, Louisiana, returned to find his mobile home swept away and his wife and 8-year-old son missing. Hours later, authorities discovered the body of Nikolus Little in the woods. His mother, Yoshiko A. Smith, was found dead later, under storm debris.

“He just went to go shopping for his family, came home and the house was gone,” Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Sgt. Casey Jones said.

A third death was confirmed west of New Orleans in St. Charles Parish, where Sheriff Greg Champagne said eight people went to hospitals with injuries Wednesday and a woman was found dead outside a home.

“There was debris everywhere. She could have been struck. We don’t know for sure,” Champagne said. “But this was a horrific and a very violent tornado.”

The National Weather Service can take days to confirm whether destructive winds were in fact tornadoes. Data compiled by the Southern Regional Climate Center at Texas A&M University showed nearly 50 tornadoes reported across six states since Tuesday — the vast majority of them in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In New Orleans, a home collapsed, injuring four people, and five people were injured in New Iberia, Louisiana, where a possible tornado smashed the windows of Iberia Medical Center, authorities said.

“When I came out, all the windows were broken,” Lindsey Ronsonet, who was with a friend seeking treatment when the storm hit, told KATC-TV. “They had rain everywhere in there.”

In Mississippi, a suspected tornado destroyed four large chicken houses, one containing 5,000 roosters, Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey said. In Summerville, Alabama, Fire Chief Michael Aaron said storm winds tore away roofing and downed power lines.

Before the storm front started moving offshore, police in rural Doerun, Georgia, reported that a suspected tornado struck a large building housing a cotton gin, leaving a sagging heap of bent metal. No injuries were reported, the police department said in a Facebook post.

Further to the north, the National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings Thursday in the Dakotas as well as portions of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. As the storm moves eastward, interior parts of the Northeast could accumulate as much as one foot (30 centimeters) of snow, said Zach Taylor, a weather service meteorologist in College Park, Maryland.

“It really, truly has been a coast-to-coast winter storm that has affected a large portion of the country, and that doesn’t begin to even mention the severe weather in the South,” Taylor said. “When you put it all together, most of the country has been affected.”

Roger Hainy, who owns a farm near Wessington Springs in central South Dakota, said he was shut in after blowing snow formed drifts that made the roads impassable. Hainy’s farm lost power earlier in the week when freezing rain hit the area.

“Back when I was a kid we used to have three-day blizzards, but this one is going to be four days,” Hainy said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had one like this.”

In Bismarck, North Dakota, an additional four inches (10 centimeters) of snow were expected Thursday to top a foot that has already accumulated. Wind gusts of 60 miles per hour (96 kph) prompted a no-travel advisory for major highways.

“The wind and ice — it’s miserable, and a lot of people are in the ditches,” said Dean Cota, manager of the Stamart Travel Center, where the parking lot was full of truckers waiting out the storm. “Everything’s just slick and it’s blowing vehicles right off the road.”

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state is well prepared for several inches of snow expected in some areas over the coming days. During a briefing in Albany, Hochul said there’s also a chance that strong winds could topple power lines.

“We have utility crews all set, already on the ground, ready to respond as quickly as possible,” she said.

Forecasters expect more blizzard conditions in places across the Upper Midwest, and ice and snow from the central Appalachians into the Northeast. The National Weather Service issued an ice storm warning Thursday in parts of four states and a winter storm warning through Friday night from Pennsylvania to Maine.