Forecasters warned Wednesday that tens of millions of people across the Plains and in the South were in the path of a severe spring weather system that could produce powerful tornadoes and hail.
At least 17 states and more than 100 million Americans were in danger of severe weather outbreaks, Accuweather meteorologists said, with the greatest threat for tornadoes Wednesday into Thursday and heavy thunderstorms through Thursday.
Central Arkansas, northern Mississippi and southern Tennessee were under the first tornado watches Wednesday. Other states at risk for severe weather such as isolated tornadoes include Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The threat of violent storms is expected to narrow in on the lower and middle portions of the Mississippi Valley, much of the upper Gulf Coast, the Tennessee Valley and part of the Ohio Valley, which houses more than 40 million people, according to Accuweather.
In a public weather update, the National Weather Service warned that a “significant tornado outbreak, with long-track, intense tornadoes” was anticipated to begin Wednesday afternoon across parts of Louisiana and Arkansas before moving eastward and peaking in the evening across Mississippi and Alabama.
“Nighttime tornadoes pose an additional risk because people are asleep,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations for the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center. “They may not be monitoring for warnings that are issued and they’re [tornadoes] very hard to see. For that reason, before people go to bed, they need to make sure they have a way to be woken up.”
Mr. Bunting noted the weather service operates a network of radios that can sound an alarm and wake people up and suggested everyone in the threatened areas have one on hand.
The tornadoes could be strong to violent with winds in excess of 100 mph to 150 mph possibly, Mr. Bunting said, adding that it is difficult to predict the intensity of twisters.
“Any tornado is dangerous to folks in the path, so it’s really important to listen to the warnings and to take those seriously,” he said.
Some of the strongest storms will be capable of producing baseball-sized hail, which is unusual for the South, Mr. Bunting said. Warm, moist and increasingly unstable air flowing northward from the Gulf of Mexico with temperatures reaching more than 80 degrees over parts of the Southeast combined with strong winds in the atmosphere create the perfect environment to intensify storms and cause them to rotate, he said.
On Wednesday, schools systems across Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi canceled classes, dismissed students early or switched to online learning. Mississippi State University also moved to remote teaching and canceled campus activities due to weather.
Mass coronavirus vaccination clinics shut down in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Labor organizers near Birmingham reportedly canceled an outdoors event at an Amazon facility where workers are voting on union representation, according to The Associated Press.
In Jackson, Tennessee, officials opened up a civic center and an emergency storm shelter near a regional airport for residents seeking refuge from severe weather.
Accuweather forecasted that storms could produce large hail, torrential downpours, strong wind gusts and isolated tornadoes stretching from northern Florida to southern Virginia and from the southern Appalachians to the southern Atlantic coast on Thursday.
The potential for flooding before and during the thunderstorms could further complicate the evening tornado threat, the weather agency noted. Heavy rainfall could lead to flooding across Missouri to southern Illinois and parts of eastern Kentucky southwestward into south Mississippi, said Bob Smerbeck, Accuweather senior meteorologist.
Some of the cities that damaging storms could hit include Little Rock, Arkansas; Monroe, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Birmingham, Alabama, The Weather Channel reported.
“The storm is probably going to be more severe this afternoon into tonight further west,” Mr. Smerbeck said Wednesday. “The storm may have peaked today. It may be weakening some for tomorrow but the atmosphere is still prime for severe weather tomorrow further east in the Carolinas all the way up to Central Virginia, probably staying south of D.C., though.”
For Thursday, the cold front will shift eastward from Alabama into Georgia, the meteorologist said, along with a moist flow coming from the Gulf of Mexico from Georgia into the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic states. Ahead of that front, he said he expects another round of severe weather for Thursday into the evening time.
Mr. Smerbeck said this year actually saw a “very slow start” in tornado activity due to cold air that came down all the way to the Gulf Coast in February. “We think for the rest of this month and into April, we’re going to see a tornado outbreak or at least severe weather outbreaks with probably a higher frequency of tornadoes,” he said.
It looks like another “healthy storm center” will come out of the Rockies into the central Plains early next week and travel northeast, the forecaster said. He anticipates two bouts of storms next week with the first one migrating across the central Plains and into Minnesota and Wisconsin while the second wave travels northeast into the Great Lakes.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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