Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are possible Thursday from parts of eastern Georgia northeastward through North Carolina, after several tornadoes and dozens of tornado warnings were reported through the night.
Large hail, wind damage and a tornado threat are expected Thursday mid-morning hours as far as Virginia and Florida, said the National Weather Service.
While nearly 16 million people in the Southeast could see powerful storms, the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center said, a region of about 3 million stretching from southeastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana across Mississippi into Alabama was at high risk for big twisters that stay on the ground for miles, straight winds up to 80 mph and destructive hail.
In all, over 40 million Americans were in the path of the fierce storms Wednesday, the center said.
More than 30,000 homes and businesses in Mississippi and Alabama were still without power Wednesday night, according to poweroutage.us.
At least nine tornadoes were reported across the South on Wednesday, the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center said: Six in Alabama, two in Mississippi and one in Louisiana. No injuries were reported.
The weather service also issued more than 50 tornado warnings in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Tornado watches included parts of seven states.
A tornado watch explains that tornado weather conditions are on the way in the next few hours, while a tornado warning is issued when a storm has been detected by the weather services.
Wednesday afternoon, a tornado reportedly damaged homes in Wayne County, Mississippi, NWS said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Storm Prediction Center said that “a significant tornado outbreak, with long-track, intense tornadoes is expected to begin this afternoon across parts of Louisiana and Arkansas, and then spread eastward and peak this evening into tonight across Mississippi and Alabama.”
A rare “particularly dangerous situation” (PDS) tornado watch had been issued by the center Wednesday afternoon due to the high chance of tornadoes in portions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. This includes the cities of Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama.
PDS watches are issued when there’s a heightened risk of strong or violent, long-track tornadoes, according to meteorologist Ray Hawthorne.
The widespread severe weather forced many schools and state agencies in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to either close or shift to virtual learning attendance. Large vaccination clinics where hundreds of people an hour can get shots without leaving their vehicles were canceled in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Also, earlier Wednesday, the center had also issued a Level 5, “high risk” warning for severe storms for portions of Mississippi and Alabama. That’s the highest level of risk for the severe storms that produce tornadoes.
This is the first time since 2012 that a high-risk warning has been issued in March, AccuWeather said.
The threat will continue overnight in Alabama, which is an especially deadly time for tornadoes in the South, experts said. “The most important thing is this is coming at nighttime. This is what scares me the most, so have multiple ways to get your weather alerts,” said Nick Lolley of the Tuscaloosa County (Alabama) Emergency Management Agency.
There will be a continued threat of widespread severe storms across the Southeast into Thursday, Weather.com said.
School systems in Alabama and Mississippi canceled classes, planned online sessions or announced early dismissals because of the threat.
In preparation for the outbreak, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a state of emergency on Tuesday afternoon ahead of the severe weather.
“This severe weather event, coupled with the COVID-19 public health emergency, poses extraordinary conditions of disaster and of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the state,” Ivey said in a statement.
A significant tornado outbreak is expected to begin this afternoon across parts of #LA & #AR, and then spread eastward and peak this evening/tonight across #MS & #AL. Long-track, intense tornadoes are expected along with damaging winds and large hail. pic.twitter.com/KLVJtzudEh
— NWS Storm Prediction Center (@NWSSPC) March 17, 2021
In Mississippi, all coronavirus vaccination sites and testing locations were closed statewide in advance of the severe weather.
Communities across the South were also urging residents to know where their closest tornado shelters are.
Elsewhere, the severe weather threat led the South Carolina Senate president to caution senators to state home Thursday while urging staff to work remotely for their safety. House Speaker Jay Lucas said that chamber would meet less than an hour Thursday to take up routine motions to be able to debate a budget next week – then adjourn.
“If you are in a situation where it is perilous that you come I’m asking you not to come,” Lucas said. “If you can come, give us a quorum and do these few things we need to do, we will be out of here in a hurry.”
Nearly all of South Carolina is under a moderate risk of severe storms with forecasters also saying there could be a few strong tornadoes. The unusually dire forecast led a number of the state’s school systems to call off in-person classes Thursday and have students and teachers meet online.
Duke Energy meteorologists are monitoring weather conditions and the company is making plans accordingly, Duke Energy Corporate Communications spokesman Ryan Mosier said.
“Line technicians, service crews and other personnel throughout Duke Energy’s service area are prepared to respond as outages and emergencies occur,” Mosier said. “As part of the company’s preparation, workers are checking equipment, supplies and inventories to ensure workers have adequate materials to make repairs and restore power outages.”
Further to the west, on the cold side of the storm, accumulating snow and rapidly strengthening winds are expected Wednesday in the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, where blizzard warnings are in effect, the National Weather Service said.