At least two people were killed in wild weather Saturday, as freezing rain, snow, ice and thunderstorms wreaked havoc for millions of holiday travelers from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.
"This is a particularly strong storm with very warm, near record-breaking temperatures in the East and very cold air in the Midwest, and that contrast is the sort of conditions that are favorable for not only winter weather but also tornadoes," National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher in College Park, Md., told Reuters.
Two people were reported killed Saturday when strong winds swept through areas south of Memphis, Miss., the state emergency management agency said. In Coahoma County, a 43-year-old man died when winds flipped his mobile home and pinned him against a tree, NBC station WMC of Memphis reported. Another man was killed when his car hit a fallen tree in Jasper County, and a woman in the car was badly injured, The Associated Press reported.
Northwest of Coahoma in eastern Arkansas, a suspected tornado injured several people and damaged homes near the town of Hughes in eastern Arkansas, dispatcher Lynn Morgan of the Saint Francis County Sheriff's Office told Reuters.
Another suspected twister near Dermott in southeast Arkansas, damaged homes and blew four semi-trucks off a highway, said National Weather Service meteorologist David Cox in Jackson, Miss.
"We are thinking it was a tornado," Cox told Reuters. "We had quite a bit of rotation and quite a bit of damage."
More than 80,000 people in Arkansas were without power on Saturday afternoon, according to utility company outage reports.
An 83-mph wind gust was reported in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, The Weather Channel reported on Twitter. A highway in the Okolona area of Louisville was closed after power lines fell onto a car dealership and nine vehicles caught fire, NBC station WAVE of Louisville reported.
High winds were also reported late Saturday in Nashville.
Thirteen states were under flood watches and warnings, with severe weather expected from east Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and southern Ohio. Three to six inches of rain were reported in southeast Missouri.
The main tornado threat was in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, said Christopher Dolce, a meteorologist at the Weather Channel.
While those states do see severe weather in winter, he added, December tornadoes are uncommon. The National Weather Service in Nashville reported that the last December tornado in Tennessee was in 2000.
The bad weather was complicating travel for the 95 million people that travel agency AAA estimates will fly or drive for the holiday.
“We’ve had pretty poor weather conditions two weeks in a row leading up to Christmas,” Dolce said. “There’s been a considerable amount of winter storm activity all the way back to the days before Thanksgiving and a lot of travel woes continuing into December.”
Further north, ice developed in parts of the Plains and Midwest. Snow was expected to affect travel from northwest Texas and Oklahoma to parts of Kansas and northern Michigan on Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
Freezing rain made for dangerously icy conditions on Oklahoma roads. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol blamed the weather for one death early Saturday morning, according to NBC affiliate KJRH in Tulsa.
Chicago was on the fringe of the storm, Dolce said, but there could still be travel headaches there Sunday.
As parts of the Northeast basked in record high temperatures for the first day of winter, the National Weather Service issued an ice storm warning for northern New York and Vermont, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Vermont and Maine also could be hit. In addition to travel woes, Dolce said, the ice could reach over half an inch in some areas, creating the risk of power outages.
Dolce said improvements were on the way for those traveling Monday and into Christmas Eve. While there were “pockets of trouble” for holiday travelers into Christmas Day, Dolce said most of the weather woes will be gone once this storm subsides.
Meanwhile, there was a surge of warm air in the Northeast, bringing temperatures into the upper 60s and low 70s as far north as New York and Philadelphia. The high in Newark, N.J., of 64 broke the city's record for the first day of winter broke of 62 set in 2011, NBCNewYork.com reported, and Atlantic City and Philadelphia hit 67 on Saturday.
“It’s goodbye, white Christmas, in parts of Southern New England,” Dolce said.
Warm weather and rain even closed the Empire State Plaza ice rink in Albany, N.Y., this weekend.
NBC News' Gil Aegerter and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published December 22 2013, 2:09 AM