ALEXANDRIA, La. | A daylong swarm of tornadoes that left a trail of destruction across the Southeast killed three people, injured a dozen more and left victims to bundle up against the cold as they picked up pieces of their homes Tuesday.
It wasn’t clear exactly how many twisters skipped across the region after the onslaught began early Monday, but the National Weather Service tweeted more than 240 tornado warnings for the region over a roughly 21-hour period.
The Storm Prediction Center logged at least three dozen reports of storm damage from east Texas to Alabama and as far north as Tennessee, and potential twisters were still swirling in southeast Alabama.
“The cat flew,” said Tonia Tyler of Pineville, Louisiana. “It picked the cat up, and the cat flew — my cat — it flew across the yard. And I knew right there, I said ‘Oh God, we’re not going to make it.'”
A husband and wife died in north Alabama, Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood said, and the storm injured others including a 7-year-old-child who was taken to a hospital, authorities said. The area was covered by debris and downed trees when first responders arrived.
“It was total chaos,” Norwood told reporters. “We had to make do the best we could.”
One person died in a home when an apparent tornado struck a residential area in Vernon Parish, said Chief Deputy Calvin Turner. He said crews spent hours trying to cut through fallen trees and utility poles to reach some hard-hit areas.
Some cities opened shelters as a cold front collided with warmer air over northern Gulf Coast states and sent temperatures plunging after the storms passed.
After a day with highs in the 40s, overnight lows Tuesday were predicted to dip below freezing, putting pressure on utility crew to restore power to more than 15,000 homes and businesses left in the dark in the region.
In Alexandria, Louisiana, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of New Orleans, crews cleared roads and restored power late into the night, working in a chilly mist.
Children in a church school were moved to the church before the tornado ripped off the school’s roof, Alexandria police Cpl. Wade Bourgeois said. Among the hardest-hit spots was the Johnny Downs Sports Complex, which he said may have suffered “total damage.” The complex includes five full-sized soccer fields, more than 10 smaller ones, and eight baseball diamonds.
Surveying damage with her family, Alexandria resident Summer Evans said there was a lot of devastation.
“It’s bad. There’s animals out, houses tore down,”she said. “The barns are gone. You can’t even find some of the properties. Houses that used to be here, you can’t even find them anymore.”
Evans said her house is OK, “but every other house around it is not.”
Meteorologist Donald Jones of the National Weather Service office in Lake Charles said it appeared the twister that hit part of Alexandria also struck near the town of DeRidder on an “absolutely ridiculous” path estimated at 63 miles (101 kilometers) long.
“I don’t know what our records for the longest total in this area is, but that’s got to be pretty damn close to it,” he said.
Three people were injured, at least one of them very seriously, by an apparent tornado that hit Amite County, Mississippi, Monday afternoon, county emergency director Grant McCurley said.
Some houses were destroyed and others severely damaged, he said. The number wasn’t known Monday night because crews couldn’t get to them all — downed trees tangled with power lines blocked county roads and state highways.
The damage was spread across the county, which adjoins the southeast Louisiana state line, McCurley said.
Four counties eastward, seven women were taken to a hospital from a heavily damaged group home in Sumrall, Mississippi. Injuries were minor, Sheriff Danny Rigel told WJTV.
In Guntown, Mississippi, near Tupelo and about 260 miles (420 kilometers) north-northeast of Amite County, an apparent tornado destroyed a church and damaged dozens of homes.
Pastor Carl Estes searched through the debris of Lighthouse Baptist Church for books, photos or any other salvageable items, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. The storm flattened the building, which Estes said was empty at the time.
Church member Shane Keith told the newspaper he rushed here after the storm and found pews tossed around the hillside.
“I wanted to cry, I really did” Keith said. “I mean, I just got baptized last year and this means a lot to me, this place right here.”
December tornadoes aren’t as unusual as they might seem. Monday was the 19th anniversary of a Southeastern tornado outbreak that produced a twister that killed 11 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Storms on Dec. 1, 2018, spawned more than two dozen tornadoes in the Midwest.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama.