The nation's weather rollercoaster took another wild swerve Thursday as the near-record snow of the last few weeks gave way to tornado warnings, wicked thunderstorms and fierce winds that knocked out power for tens of thousands.
Tornado warnings and watches were scattered late Thursday evening among counties in seven states, some of them in effect until as late as 5 a.m. ET Friday: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. As many as 12 states were under tornado alerts at one time or another Thursday.
The storms hit Illinois with the first confirmed tornado in the U.S. since four twisters caused minor damage Jan. 11 in Georgia and Virginia — more than a month ago.
There were no immediate reports of injuries from the tornado, which touched down about 3 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) near Arenzville, Ill., northwest of Springfield. But the National Weather Service said the twister destroyed seven outbuildings in Arenzville and knocked over power poles and campers in Mechanicsburg.
More than 66,500 customers were without power late Thursday from Arkansas to Michigan, with most of them in Missouri and Illinois, power utilities reported.
The Chicago area was under a high wind warning until 6 a.m. Friday (7 a.m. ET). Winds gusting to 30 mph, rain and heavy fog choked rush-hour visibility.
Northbound traffic was shut down on Interstate 57 south of town after a pileup late Thursday afternoon that involved at least two tractor-trailer trucks and at least 15 passenger vehicles. No life-threatening injuries were immediately reported.
Trees and power lines were downed and numerous buildings were damaged across the entire storm-hit region, but few other injuries were reported by early Friday morning.
In Deering, Mo., wind tipped trailer onto a vehicle with three people inside, Pemiscot County emergency officials said. The occupants suffered bruises and lacerations.
An 8-year-old boy and his mother suffered non-life-threatening injuries when the roof was blown off a house in Lauderdale County in northern Alabama, emergency officials said.
In Alton, Ill., a 25-year-old woman suffered non-life-threatening injuries Thursday afternoon when a utility pole fell on her car as she was driving in near-zero-visibility conditions, police said.
In Todd County, Ky., a mobile home was blown off its foundation with the family inside. No one was hurt.
The storms were spawned by strong winds funneling south in the upper atmosphere that slammed into a mass of wet air drifting north from the Gulf of Mexico, said Greg Forces, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel. The result is the potential for spring-like thunder and hail storms extending well into Friday all the way from the Gulf to the Canadian border.
"The most prominent threat with these cells is going to be damaging winds," Forbes said, but more tornadoes could also spring up.
Hail the size of nickels fell near Donipahn, Mo., on Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service, while quarter-size fell on Cutler and Carbondale, Ill.
Meanwhile, midafternoon wind gusts of 60 mph or higher were clocked at St. Louis- Lambert International Airport and near Kilbourne, Ill. The National Weather noted an unconfirmed report of a 90-mph gust late in the afternoon near Memphis, Tenn.
Forecasters warned that the winds could knock down fragile tree limbs hanging by a thread after last week's vicious winter storms, potentially creating widespread power failures from Georgia north to the mid-Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the system's drenching rains threatened to cause widespread floods as new water is dropped onto melting snow and ice. Flood advisories were in effect along a wide stretch of the Ohio Valley from northeast Ohio to northern Missouri, as well as in parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.
"This winter, it's been the snow. But before the snow, it was the water, and then it was both," said 80-year-old Gerald Alspaugh of Lancaster, Ohio.
"Right now, it's snow and rain, so I stay in the house for a week at a time or so," Alspaugh told NBC station WCMH of Columbus.
Bob Fowler, emergency management director in Brooke County, Ohio, said the real danger was from ice jams, which are created when heavy rain causes frozen rivers and lakes to rise rapidly, breaking the ice and gushing out a flood of water.
Breaking up potential ice jams before they become dangerous is difficult "unless you could get piece of equipment like a track hoe at the edge of the creek to break up the ice," Fowler told NBC station WTOV of Steubenville.
"Nature is going to kind of take its course at that point."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A National Weather Service satellite map shows the extent of the severe weather running Thursday from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.
First published February 20 2014, 3:22 PM