Video: Tornado hits store, sends workers running

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/9/2011 7:29:20 PM ET 2011-03-10T00:29:20

Alabama and Louisiana on Wednesday declared states of emergency after twisters hit some areas, while floods submerged others — all part of a severe storm system making its way to the Northeast, where significant flooding was expected Thursday.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie late Wednesday declared a state of emergency for areas along the Passaic and Delaware rivers and flood-prone Bound Brook in Somerset County.

In the South earlier Wednesday, winds tore roofs off buildings, overturned cars and injured several people. A woman died in a house fire in Mississippi that authorities believe was caused by lightning.   

Two apparent tornadoes damaged buildings near Mobile in southwest Alabama, hours after several tornadoes were reported to the west near New Orleans, La.

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Several tornadoes also touched down in southern Mississippi damaging some mobile homes, according to the police department in Biloxi.

The same system caused street flooding in New Orleans, dumped seven inches of rain in parts of Mississippi, triggered thunderstorms in Tennessee that ripped off part of a school's roof, and caused lightning in Florida that indirectly struck two students at separate schools — one who touched a light switch, the other a door handle.

Both were hospitalized in stable condition.

Alabama: Damage and power outages
Ambulances, police cars and fire trucks with flashing lights descended on the Theodore area near Mobile after an apparent tornado struck about 8:45 a.m. local time, overturning vehicles, nearly demolishing a gas station, knocking down power lines and causing ammonia and natural gas leaks.

Image: Damaged gas station, vehicles
Mike Kittrell  /  Mobile Press-Register via AP
Residents of Theodore, Ala., said a tornado hit these vehicles and gas station, as well as nearby structures, early Wednesday morning.

Three minor injuries were reported, but the entire town was rattled.

Evelyn Thibeault said she saw the twister go by her business.

"My front door flew open and a plant flew across the floor. Everything just turned white. BP (gas station) is just gone. It's horrible," said Thibeault, breathing hard during a telephone interview. "It hit a hardware store, a little country music place they have. We're all still nervous and shook up."

Across Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, a possible tornado damaged several homes and businesses in Silverhill. Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were without electricity.

"It's still pretty rough here. We've got a few roads that are now underwater," said Paula Tillman of the county emergency agency.

Torrential rains caused flooding across a wide area of the state, and damage was reported in 17 counties by midday.

To the north, in central Alabama, storms knocked out power to more than 4,600 homes and businesses. Two Perry County schools were closed because of damage from a storm that moved through late Tuesday, and two counties in north Alabama delayed classes Wednesday because of heavy rains.

Forecasters said winds gusting to 50 mph were possible, along with up to 6 inches of rain in west Alabama, where water pooled in ditches along rural roads in Bibb County. Forecasters issued flash flood warnings and watches that covered most of the state.

In Montgomery, morning commuters struggled to open doors as the wind whistled, and heavy rain blotted out the view from tall buildings.

The state of emergency declaration allows a governor to request federal help.

Louisiana: Deluge
Tornadoes touched down early in the morning just east of New Orleans and on the heels of the Mardi Gras season, which ended Tuesday night.

Image: Flooded New Orleans street
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
A man wades through water to get to his truck during street flooding in the Mid City section of New Orleans on Wednesday morning.

The New Orleans metropolitan area was also under a flash flood warning as downpours ranging from 1 to 3 inches flooded some streets. Some 10,000 people lost power during the storm.

Forecaster Mike Shields said one tornado touched down about 10 miles southwest of Bush in St. Tammany Parish around 5:20 a.m. — injuring one person, damaging a house, destroying a trailer and knocking down trees. Emergency officials said the woman suffered a cut on her head.

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The National Weather Service also reported tornadoes in Kenner, where no damage was reported, and around Lacombe, where a roof was torn off a house.

In the village of Tangipahoa, authorities used boats and pickup trucks to evacuate a mobile home park after heavy rains caused a creek to overflow its banks, flooding about 20 to 30 homes. About 130 people were displaced, with 19 spending the night in a shelter, said Tangipahoa Parish spokesman Jeff McKneely.

Tennessee: School hit
A thunderstorm in eastern Tennessee tore a section of roof from Camp Creek Elementary School on Wednesday morning, The Greeneville Sun reported. No injuries were reported and there were no children at the school yet.

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Mississippi: Roads flooded
Some buildings were damaged by the twisters and storms there, but no deaths or injuries were immediately reported.

Flash flood warnings were in effect in southeast Mississippi, and roads in several counties were flooded.

"Flooding is going to persist in some areas for a few days as water filters down into the larger rivers and waterways," said Daniel Lamb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson.

Storms heading east
That same storm front will bring heavy precipitation to much of the eastern United States, making flash flooding likely in already swollen flood plains from the Mississippi to the Carolinas, the Weather Channel said.

Video: Severe weather triggers closures, evacuations (on this page)

The mid-Atlantic region is under a flood watch by the National Weather Service.

Heavy rain on Wednesday and Thursday will make the low lying areas prime for more flooding in New Jersey where water already has moved into some homes and shut down roads this week.

Image: Inmate ties sandbags in NJ
Julio Cortez  /  AP
Tom Harvey, an inmate at the Passaic County jail, ties sandbags Wednesday ahead of expected flooding around Little Falls, N.J.

The National Weather Service issued flood warnings through Thursday morning for several New Jersey counties and the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management is most concerned about towns along the Delaware and Passaic rivers in Morris, Essex, Bergen, Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

"The ground is saturated, the rivers are full," said Mary Goepfert, external affairs officer for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. "We are getting ready for a significant event."

Farther north, the Midwest can expect more rain and snow, adding to between six and 12 inches of snow around the Great Lakes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Explainer: Spring flood forecast

  • NOAA

    "A large swath of the North Central United States is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring," the National Weather Service said in its latest forecast on Feb. 24. Below are the scenarios by region.

  • North Central U.S.: above average

    Image: Ice backs up on Mississippi River
    Emily M Rasinski  /  St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
    Ice backs up on the Mississippi River around the Clark Bridge in Alton, Ill., north of St. Louis, on Jan. 24.

    Heavy late summer and autumn precipitation (twice the normal amount since October in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota) have left soils saturated and streams running high before the winter freeze-up. NWS models show this year’s snowpack contains a water content ranked among the highest of the last 60 years.

    The combination put a large portion of the North Central United States at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring, extending from northeastern Montana through western Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River south to St. Louis.

    Information provided by NOAA on February 17, 2011, indicated Fargo, N.D., has a near 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 30 feet. At a stage of 30 feet, portions of downtown Fargo begin flooding and temporary dike construction is necessary. Approximately a 20 percent chance exists of reaching or exceeding the 40.8 foot record set in 2009. Grand Forks, N.D., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 46 feet. There is approximately a 40 percent chance of Devils Lake, N.D., exceeding 1,455 feet, which could partially inundate portions of the town of Minnewauken, including critical infrastructure and roads across the lake, emergency service routes and possibly a small section of the Amtrak train line.

    There is potential for moderate to major flooding on the Milk River and its tributaries in northeastern Montana. The Milk River near Glasgow Montana has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding the major flood stage of 27 feet. Some minor ice jam flooding is already occurring in Montana; additional flooding resulting from ice jams is likely throughout the late winter and early spring.

    The James River at Huron, S.D., has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 15 feet and a 30 percent chance of exceeding the record 21.2 foot level set in 1997. The Big Sioux River at Brookings, S.D., has a greater than 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 12 feet and about a 30 percent chance of exceeding the 14.77-foot record set in 1969.

    The Mississippi River is likely to see major flooding from its headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota, downstream to St. Louis. St. Paul, MN., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 17 feet, where secondary flood walls are deployed to protect the St. Paul Airport. Further downstream, the risk of major flooding on the Mississippi (Iowa, Illinois and Missouri borders) will persist into the spring. Much of that region’s snowpack typically accumulates later in the winter. The quantity of spring rains and late-season snow will determine the magnitude of flooding in the Middle Mississippi Valley.

  • Northeast: above average

    Image: Frozen Hudson River
    Mike Groll  /  AP
    The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is frozen in ice on the Hudson River and in front of the Catskill Mountains in Hudson, N.Y., on Jan. 14.

    There is a small area of above average flood risk in portions of the Northeast, primarily across Southern New England and the Catskills Mountains in N.Y. state. As a result of October and November rain storms, these regions had above normal soil moisture levels prior to the winter freeze, followed by above average snowfall, and river icing in many locations.

    If snowpack and river icing conditions were to persist beyond mid-March, this area could have an elevated risk of spring flooding during the melt period, especially if heavy rains fall during the melt.

  • Southern plains: below average

    Image: Dry area of Texas
    Eric Gay  /  AP
    An irrigation system is used to bring water to a dry field near Hondo, Texas on Dec. 15.

    Fall and winter precipitation over Texas and New Mexico was significantly below average, ranging from 20 to 75 percent of normal from October 2010 to mid-February 2011. Portions of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande basins received as little as 10 percent of normal rainfall. Soil Moisture Analysis by the Climate Prediction Center show drier than normal soils from the surface to as deep as 2 meters.

    This deficit will minimize the amount of water that can be converted to river flows during any rainstorm. Current stream flow conditions as measured by the US Geological Survey range from near average too much below average for stations across this region.

  • Mid-Atlantic, Southeast: below average

    Image: Dry Georgia farm
    David Goldman  /  AP
    Farmer Aries Haygood shows how dry the top layer of soil is on his freshly planted onion farm in Lyons, Ga., on Dec. 10.

    Fall and winter precipitation over the Mid Atlantic and Southeast ranged from 50 to 75 percent of average for this period. Isolated portions of South and North Carolina only received between 25 and 50 percent of normal precipitation. Therefore, soil moisture is well below normal across most of the Southeastern US and the Mid-Atlantic.

    Deficits in the precipitation and soil moisture water contents translate into below average stream flow conditions for much of the region and a below average flood risk for the spring.

  • West: no forecast yet

    Image: Snow in Sierras
    Scott Sady  /  AP
    A utility worker restores service to homes around Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Dec. 20 after a storm that dumped up to 10 feet of snow in places.

    Late February is too early to determine spring flooding potential across the Western U.S. Much of the snowfall which determines spring runoff in the mountain west accumulates during the remainder of the winter and spring.

    Snowpack remains above and much above average in many regions. However, extreme high temperature can lead to elevated melt rates at any time during spring. There is still ample time left in the accumulation period for the spring flood potential to change.

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