At least 11 people lost their lives as tornadoes tore through Texas, authorities said yesterday as they searched home to home for possibly more victims of the freak storms lashing the southern United States.
The rare December twisters that flattened houses and caused chaos on highways raised the death toll from days of deadly weather across the South to at least 28.
An infant was reportedly among the latest casualties.
The extreme weather, fuelled by unseasonably warm air, is likely to continue for the next few days, the National Weather Service (NWS) warned, complicating search and rescue efforts and possibly wreaking more havoc on the region.
Several tornadoes touched down around the densely populated Dallas area on Saturday evening, the day after Christmas, with the city of Garland to the northeast the hardest hit.
Aerial footage taken as day broke showed some homes completely flattened, while others had roofs blown off and windows shattered, curtains fluttering in the wind.
“It is total devastation,” local police spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Barineau was quoted as saying by the Dallas Morning News. “It is a very difficult time to be struck by such a horrible storm the day after Christmas.”
It was here that authorities confirmed eight fatalities, adding that 15 people were taken to hospital with injuries.
About 600 buildings have been damaged, they said, with single-family homes most affected.
“Officials are continuing this morning to check and clear structures as they assess the damage in the approximate 2sq mile (5sq km area) area,” officials said in a statement.
Police said the deaths happened during tornado-related traffic accidents near Interstate 30 and the George Bush Turnpike, the Dallas Morning News reported, saying some of the bodies were found in cars while others were catapulted from the scene.
Three other storm-related fatalities occurred in the towns of Copeville and Blue Ridge in Collin County to the northeast of Dallas, the local sheriff’s office confirmed to AFP, without providing more details.
The Dallas Morning News reported that an infant was among the dead.
The late Saturday deaths in Texas came as millions of residents in the southern United States struggle to recover from fierce storms and heavy flooding, with more rain in the forecast.
At least 17 people were killed in storm-related incidents since Wednesday in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas, local officials said.
In Alabama, heavy flooding continued yesterday following several days of heavy rain that began on Thursday.
Governor Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency to deal with the flooding just before tornadoes uprooted trees and tore off rooftops on Christmas Day.
One touched down in Birmingham, the state’s most populous city.
There were no fatalities, but the twister damaged three homes, local fire chief Charles Gordon told CNN.
Near the Alabama state capital Montgomery, more than 300 inmates at the minimum-security Red Eagle Community Work Centre were forced to evacuate due to flooding, local media reported.
And residents of the town of Elba were nervously eyeing a levee amid forecasts that the Pea River would crest and possibly overflow the barrier, the AL.com news site reported.
In Mississippi, where Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency to deal with flooding, “severe storms” are forecast to last through today, the state Emergency Management Agency (EMA) said.
Early EMA damage reports showed 241 homes destroyed or with major damage, and more than 400 total homes affected.
The agency confirmed the deaths of 10 people in Mississippi. There were another six confirmed fatalities in Tennessee, and one person was killed in Arkansas.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal also declared states of emergency in counties affected by the weather.
“A variety of dangerous weather conditions will continue across the middle of the country through Sunday,” the NWS said.
It warned of “blizzard conditions” from west Texas into Kansas, and “hazardous ice accumulations” in Oklahoma.
“Dangerous flooding will extend from north Texas to central Illinois,” it said.
As of 9am Central Time yesterday, there were about 440 flights canceled in the United States, according to tracking service FlightAware.com, with more than half being in Dallas, a major US flight hub.
Flood warnings and advisories also remained in effect in parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and other areas in the southeast.
Record-setting warm temperatures are on the front of the weather system, while ice and sleet are on the other side, forecasters said.
The NWS reported up to 60cm of snow in New Mexico yesterday, disrupting travel as many people tried to return home after Christmas celebrations.
Meanwhile, unseasonal scenes of people playing beach volleyball in New York’s Central Park in 20° Fahrenheit temperatures on Christmas Eve illustrated the stark contrasts brought on by a weekend of mish-mash weather.
On the other side of the country in and around Washington state, winter sports fans enjoyed optimal skiing conditions.
Elsewhere, wildfires in California continued to spread yesterday.
They began two days earlier and spread quickly because of winds estimated at about 80kph.
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