Deep South lashed by severe storms, high winds

Posted at 3:56 PM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-23 18:56:09-05

A suspected tornado caused some damage but no injuries near New Orleans' main airport Tuesday as severe weather spawned possible twisters and high winds in parts of the Deep South, authorities said.

Emergency officials and the National Weather Service said the reported tornado was spotted near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the suburban city of Kenner. It was believed to have touched down in a nearby field.

Ronald Myers lives across the street from New Mount Bethel Baptist Church, where and his wife are members. He recalled the sky darkening and high winds — he believes it was a tornado. They came outside when they heard the church's alarm go off.

"My wife came over to turn the alarm off and she came back home and said, Baby, the wall behind the church has done fell down,'" said Myers. He said he struggled to keep his footing in the wind, and it nearly knocked his wife down: "I weigh 242 pounds. If it could move me, it was moving."

High winds sheared the brick and mortar from the rear wall of the church.

The storms were part of a line of severe weather rumbling across Southeast Louisiana. Severe weather watches were expected to last into the evening in the state.

In neighboring Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, in anticipation of severe weather.

High winds ripped off roofs and downed trees around the greater New Orleans area. Other suspected tornadoes were reported north of Lake Pontchartrain and west of the city in St. Charles and Ascension parishes.

In Kenner, cars were reported damaged at a parking lot near the airport. In Prairieville, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, heavy damage was reported to some buildings, including a fitness gym.

More than 6 million people in parts of five states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia — were in an area of moderate risk for a few strong tornadoes and other severe weather Tuesday, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, estimated.

Meanwhile, schools across south Louisiana and Mississippi canceled classes ahead of the storm, sending tens of thousands of students home early to avoid having buses on the road when severe storms arrived.

Forecasters said about half of Alabama had a moderate risk of severe weather including tornadoes. On Tuesday afternoon, an emergency management official in west Alabama said a storm has knocked down trees and damaged at least one home near the rural town of Reform.

Ken Gibson, emergency management director in Pickens County, said no one was injured in the storm Tuesday.

The storms began as a line of fierce thunderstorms moved across Texas, raising the risk of tornadoes, hail and damaging winds around several states, forecasters said.

The South Texas storms left thousands of people without power and windows broken after hail the size of golf balls damaged some buildings, but no one was injured after the bad weather Monday night, according to the Kinney County Sheriff's Office in that state.

In Alabama and Georgia, forecasters issued flash flood watches ahead of the storm system, which was expected to drop 1 to 2 inches of rain, with higher amounts possible in some areas. The warnings, which covered large parts of both states, were expected to be in effect through Wednesday afternoon.

In Arkansas, heavy rain, powerful winds and some snow were forecast for parts of the state Tuesday and Wednesday. The National Weather Service in Little Rock described the storm system as a "three-headed monster" on its Facebook page.

The National Weather Service said new rain on already saturated soil could cause roads to flood, as well as low-lying areas and small streams. The weather service projected that some of the heaviest rain would fall in metro Atlanta and in parts of the north Georgia mountains, where up to 3 inches was expected.

The stormy weather canceled school in parts of South Texas and apparently contributed to a school bus flipping on a rain-slick highway in Houston.

The bus driver suffered minor injuries in the accident Tuesday morning, Houston Independent School District spokeswoman Lila Hollin said. No students were on board during what's believed to be a weather-related crash, Hollin said. The school bus ended on its side atop an embankment.


Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this story.