Severe weather menaces central and southern US, snarls holiday traffic

People walk past the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre on Dec 22, 2015 in New York City.
People walk past the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre on Dec 22, 2015 in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

AUSTIN, Texas (REUTERS) - At least two people died as severe storms menaced the southern and central United States on Wednesday (Dec 23), pelting a region home to tens of millions of people with heavy rain and hail, and snarling roads as holiday travel began in earnest for the Christmas weekend.

The bad weather scrambled plans for travellers in Florida, even as dreams of a white Christmas melted in northeastern parts of the country, which were experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures.

An 18-year-old Arkansas woman died and a toddler was injured when a tree crashed into her house after being uprooted by powerful winds during a storm, according to emergency officials.

In Mississippi, at least one person was confirmed dead and authorities were working to confirm two other reported deaths on Wednesday (Dec 23) evening in tornadoes that ripped through the state during the afternoon, said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

A 7-year-old boy was among the dead in Mississippi, media outlets including WREG-TV in Memphis, Tennessee, reported, citing city officials in the town of Holly Springs.

More than 100 million Americans were expected to travel during the holiday period beginning Wednesday (Dec 23) - 91 million of them by car, according to the American Automobile Association.

In the Northeast, where warmer weather spared drivers the crippling delays wrought by winter storms, traffic was heavy, with more rain expected until Thursday (Dec 24) in and around New York.

In New Jersey alone, more than 2 million vehicles had been expected to hit the roads on Wednesday (Dec 23).

 

In California, 11 million people were planning to travel by car between Dec 23 and Jan 3, and another one million were planning to fly to their destinations.

States from Louisiana to Illinois were under a tornado watch. Forecasters tracked a handful of tornadoes in northern Mississippi throughout Wednesday afternoon, including one that touched down in the small town of Ashland, causing power outages, injuries and damage, according to the National Weather Service.

A tornado sighting was reported in Clarksdale, Mississippi, near the Arkansas border, the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center website said. Possible tornado damage was also reported near Indianapolis, Indiana.

Meanwhile, the agency said it received reports of hail as large as golf balls falling in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma.

"If there's one location under the gun at the moment, it's Memphis and points north," said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Carbin said travelers in Georgia, New York, Tennessee and Ohio were likely to experience some weather-related delays on Wednesday (Dec 23) evening.

Travel in Minnesota was also briefly disrupted when Black Lives Matter activists protesting a spate of police killings of unarmed black people nationwide, shut down roadways to both terminals at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, an airport spokesman said.

Protesters in California blocked traffic near San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday (Dec 23) as part of the same "Black Xmas" protest.