2-day severe weather outbreak leaves widespread destruction across southern US

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Intense winds, flooding downpours and tornadoes left behind a trail of destruction as the first severe weather outbreak of 2020 roared through the southern United States. From Friday morning to Saturday night, the storms turned deadly and left a long recovery process in its wake.

During the two-day span, a total of over 650 wind reports were submitted to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. Tornado ratings continued to filter in on Sunday until the preliminary reports totaled at least 19 tornadoes.

At least 11 fatalities have been confirmed from Oklahoma and Iowa to Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, as violent storms progressed across the Deep South and ice led to treacherous travel in the Midwest.

The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Huntsville, Alabama, said a storm survey team found damage from an EF2 tornado that produced winds up to 120 mph in Marshall County. On Saturday, the NWS office in Little Rock, Arkansas, found damage from another EF2 in Logan County after storms moved through Friday.

A survey crew found damage from an EF1 tornado that hit Friday near Caldwell, Texas, on Saturday. The team estimated the winds reached up to 100 mph.

Another tornado was confirmed to have hit North-Central High School around 10:30 p.m. EST Saturday in Kershaw County, South Carolina. The NWS in Columbia, South Carolina, said a high-end EF2 tornado with estimated winds around 130 mph had hit the building. The NWS Storm Survey Team is still in the process of evaluating the path width and length of the tornado.

The school district confirmed the school would be closed as the damage is assessed, and there would be no school Monday or Tuesday, according to the Charlotte Observer.

The severe weather outbreak initiated on Friday morning as thunderstorms erupted across Oklahoma, before expanding into Missouri and Texas, on Friday afternoon and advancing eastward through Arkansas and Louisiana, on Friday night.

Dozens of tornado warnings were issued across the region during this time frame, including one in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex as an intense storm swept through the city. Over 1.7 million people were alerted of a possible tornado, as well as travelers waiting for their flights at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. No tornado was confirmed.

Saturday morning, residents of Bossier Parish, Louisiana, woke up to find Benton Middle School had parts of its roof torn off.

The damage is being attributed to straight-line winds, superintendent of Bossier Parish Schools Mitch Downey told AccuWeather, which took the roof off the northwest wing of the school along with strips of the upper walls in some areas. Some classrooms are completely roofless while others had as high as 4 feet of water in them Saturday morning.

“I was just absolutely devastated,” 6th grade teacher Lisa Thompson told AccuWeather. “I’ve been teaching here for a very long time – my children went to school here. This is home.”

The NWS in Shreveport, Louisiana, said EF2 tornado damage was confirmed in parts of Bossier and Claiborne Parish. The twister unleashed winds estimated at 135 mph and traveled about 40 miles.

While the devastation was heartbreaking for many people who had connections to the school, Benton Middle’s principal Dr. Kyle Machen expressed his relief that the storm hadn’t happened while school had been in session.

“My initial reaction was ‘Wow,’ and then just one of thanking God that we weren’t actually in school when the storm took place,” Machen told AccuWeather. “Brick and mortar, textbooks, all that stuff can be replaced, and I’m confident that that will be the case. For us it’s always been not the outside of the classroom, but what’s taking place inside the classroom that’s our number one priority. I’m confident that we’ll resume that as quickly as we can.”

His gratitude was echoed by Louisiana Republican Congressman Mike Johnson, who had flown in from Washington on Friday ahead of the storm.

“We are grateful that students weren’t here in the classroom,” Johnson told AccuWeather. “This one hits home really closely to me. I have an eighth grader here, my son Jack.”

As of Saturday, classes at Benton Middle School have been cancelled for Monday.

Three fatalities were in northwestern Louisiana. Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office confirmed Jerry W. Franks and Mary Sue Franks had been killed when the tornado hit and devastated their mobile home just before 2 a.m. Saturday. The third fatality happened in Caddo Parish when a tree fell on a house, according to KSLA.

There were three more fatalities on Saturday in Pickens County, Alabama, when “an embedded tornado within a long line of intense thunderstorms,” the Alabama Emergency Management Agency said.

Three people died in Texas. According to The Associated Press, a person died Friday night when a car flipped into a creek in Dallas, Texas, as severe weather passed through the area.

Saturday morning, two Texas first responders were killed after they were hit by a vehicle, according to the AP. They had been working the scene of a traffic accident in Lubbock, Texas, during icy conditions after the severe weather had moved through, officials had told the news source.

The two first responders were 27-year-old Officer Nicholas Reyna, a police officer who had been with the department for one year, and 39-year-old firefighter Lt. David Hill. Matthew Dawson, another firefighter, had also been hit and was listed in critical condition.

Icy conditions reached into Iowa, where the Iowa State Patrol told The AP a semitrailer on an icy I-80 overturned, killing a passenger in the truck.

Officials told The AP that a man drowned after floodwaters from the severe storms swept away his truck near Kiowa, Oklahoma. His body was found around 8:15 a.m. CST on Saturday about 100 yards away from his Chevy pickup. It is currently unknown around what time he drowned.

The severe thunderstorms kept their punch all the way to the Southeast coast, with downed trees and power outages reported in Virginia and the Carolinas late Saturday.

An isolated severe thunderstorm farther north in Troy, Ohio, prompted a tornado warning late Saturday.

“Troy experienced a high wind event resulting in power lines and trees down through sections of the city. The downtown was significantly affected and the square will be closed to traffic until further notice,” the local government said on Twitter. There have been no reported injuries at this time.

The National Weather Service conducted a storm damage survey on Sunday and found that two EF0 tornadoes had hit Miami County, NWS Wilmington, Ohio said. One had occurred in the city of Troy while the other had been near Fletcher, Ohio.

Power outages totaled more than 318,000 customers for a time Saturday evening from Texas to Kentucky, according to PowerOutage.us. That number was down to under 100,000 by Sunday morning.

Communities left picking up the pieces will contend with daily rounds of showers and thunderstorms into midweek.

Johnson told AccuWeather that the people affected by the storms in Louisiana are resilient and ready to pick up the pieces.

“We’ll get this thing repaired, and we’re a very resilient people in this community and everybody knows that,” Johnson said. “This is not our first storm, it won’t be our last, and we’ll pick up our pieces and move on.”

Additional reporting by Bill Waddell and Brian Lada.

by Chaffin Mitchel, Adriana Navarro & Renee Duff (2020, Jan 13) AccuWeather

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Kyrie Wagner