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Christmas Day storms blamed for 3 deaths

Wednesday - 12/26/2012, 3:18am  ET

Geraldine Pedersen and her dog Marlow were in her car traveling down U.S. 71 in the Tioga, Louisiana area when a tree fell down in front of the car and a wind knocked her car into a yard, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. A tornado through the Central Louisiana area. (AP Photo/The Town Talk, Melinda Martinez)

JIM VAN ANGLEN
Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- Twisters hopscotched across the Deep South, and, along with brutal, straight-line winds, knocked down countless trees, blew the roofs off homes and left many Christmas celebrations in the dark. 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.

As predicted, conditions were volatile throughout the day and into the night with tornado warnings still out for some parts of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The storms were blamed for three deaths, several injuries, and left homes from Louisiana to Alabama damaged.

In Mobile, Ala., a tornado or high winds damaged homes, a high school and church, and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown around nightfall. WALA-TV's tower camera captured the image of a large funnel cloud headed toward downtown.

Rick Cauley, his wife, Ashley, and two children were hosting members of both of their families. When the sirens went off, the family headed down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School.

"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. Hours after the storm hit, officials reported no serious injuries in the southwestern Alabama city.

The storm system with heavy rains moved into Georgia early Wednesday and expected to hit the Carolinas with severe weather as well.

Meanwhile, blizzard conditions hit the nation's midsection.

Earlier in the day, winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, and the Highway Patrol there says a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy U.S. Highway near Fairview.

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.

Blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky with predictions of 4 to 7 inches of snow.

A tornado struck a mobile home park near the municipal airport at Troy, Ala., trapping a man in the wreckage of a trailer, said Thomas Johnston of the Pike County Emergency Management Agency. Rescue workers freed the person, who wasn't hurt badly, and no other serious injuries were reported, he said.

An apparent tornado also caused damage in Grove Hill, about 80 miles north of Mobile.

Mary Cartright said she was working at the Fast Track convenience store in the town on Christmas evening when the wind started howling and the lights flickered, knocking out the store's computerized cash registers.

"Our cash registers are down so our doors are closed," said Cartright in a phone interview.

Trees fell on a few houses in central Louisiana's Rapides Parish, but there were no injuries reported, said sheriff's Lt. Tommy Carnline. Near McNeill, Miss., 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.

Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency in the state, saying eight counties have reported damages and some injuries.

Fog blanketed highways, including arteries in the Atlanta area, which was expected to be dealing with the same storm system on Wednesday. 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.

More than 500 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 100,000 customers without power for at least a time in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

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.

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