(Trends Wide) — Large tornadoes, damaging winds and hail threaten millions of people across the southern United States on Tuesday, as Texans carefully check dozens of homes and buildings that were heavily damaged Monday by severe storms and possible tornadoes that hit the state.
About 8.5 million people from eastern Texas to northwestern Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas remained under a tornado watch as of 8 a.m. local time (9 a.m. ET), reported Trends Wide meteorologist Rob Shackelford. There is also the possibility of hail up to 3.8 centimeters in diameter and wind gusts reaching 120 km/h.
As the storm system moves east Tuesday, about 20 million people in the lower Mississippi Valley and central Gulf Coast region will be under some severe weather threats, Shackelford warned. These include large tornadoes, damaging winds and hail, she noted.
The main cities in the path of the storm are Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana. Also Jackson and Gulfport, in Mississippi, along with Houston, Memphis and Birmingham, Alabama.
The possibility of strong tornadoes will last until Tuesday night, the Storm Prediction Center warned. “Nighttime tornadoes are more than twice as likely to be deadly than daytime tornadoes,” the agency noted.
Texas grapples with fallout from potential tornadoes
About 18 million people from Texas to Alabama and northern Arkansas and Tennessee are under a flood watch Tuesday, Shackelford added. The system will weaken as it continues to move east on Wednesday. Which will create a slight risk of severe weather in areas like Atlanta and Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Texas officials are setting up shelters for displaced families as they try to assess the full extent of Monday’s damage. In Texas and Oklahoma, 20 tornadoes were reported, the National Weather Service said. Adding to that, more than 54,000 customers lost power Tuesday morning in Texas, mostly in the Houston area, according to PowerOutage.us.
Severe weather conditions hit the state as it was already dealing with more than 170 wildfires in the past week. The flames have burned more than 43,700 hectares, according to firefighters.
In Jacksboro, about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth, it was a miracle more people weren’t injured, Fire Chief Jeremy Jennings said. Especially at Jacksboro Elementary School, which was home to a large number of students when a storm tore through and left its gym badly damaged, he added.
The children were about to go home when officials decided to have them all go back inside, Jacksboro Police Chief Scott Haynes added.
The Jacksboro High School gymnasium was also heavily damaged and the facility will be unusable “for some time,” Jennings said.
“We’re very blessed to have facilities designed to withstand a storm, the storm damage that we take,” Brad Burnett, superintendent of the Jacksboro Independent School District, told Trends Wide affiliate WFAA. “I just know that our students were safe in our facility. And I’m thankful for that.”
Elementary school students were “quite shaken” when they walked out of the school and saw the storm damage, Burnett added.
‘I’ve never seen anything close to this’
In Jack County, where Jacksboro is located, between 60 and 80 houses were “torn down,” authorities said. And they added that a shelter for displaced families was established.
“I’ve been part of the emergency services for 24 years here. I’ve never seen anything come close to this magnitude here,” said Jennings, the fire chief. “Nothing like this, not even anywhere else in this county,” he insisted.
Further south, in the Austin area, several state agencies, including the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Department of Public Safety, are addressing storm damage in Williamson and Bastrop counties, the governor said. Greg Abbott.
An emergency declaration was already in effect in Williamson County due to the recent fires. And it will also apply to storm damage, Abbott said. “As we speak right now, I want everyone across the state who is going through this to know that the state of Texas will be with you every step of the way,” the governor said.
A possible tornado moved through Round Rock in Williamson County around 6 p.m., authorities said.
Although many homes, businesses and municipal buildings around the city sustained significant damage, only minor injuries were reported, Police Chief Allen Banks said. Emergency services were still assessing the damage to determine the number of affected buildings, he said. Round Rock is about 15 miles north of Austin.
The storm also produced widespread rainfall of 1 to 2 inches, though some areas received as much as 6 inches. Which should help with drought conditions in the region, Shackelford said. Another 1 to 4 inches of rain is possible, forecasters said.
A flash flood warning was also issued Tuesday morning for parts of central Texas, including south Austin. More than 800,000 people in the city area were under the warning, which expired at dawn.
Abbott encouraged residents in storm-impacted areas to wait until morning to fully assess their property. Precisely because doing it at night could be dangerous, she added.
Trends Wide’s Taylor Romine, Joe Sutton, Susannah Cullinane and Claudia Dominguez contributed to this report.