Deadly tornadoes hit South as severe storm threat shifts east

The storm cut power to more than 200,000 customers across the South on Wednesday and Wednesday night. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 140,000 customers were in the dark from Florida to Michigan because of thunderstorm gusts and ambient winds from the larger storm system.

A threat of severe storms, although somewhat tempered compared with Wednesday, affects much of East Coast on Thursday, from Florida to New York state. Throughout this area, there is a risk of damaging thunderstorm winds as well as a few tornadoes through the evening.

Tornado watches were issued for portions of southeast Virginia and the Carolinas as well as north Florida and southeast Georgia into the afternoon and evening. A severe thunderstorm watch was issued from northern Virginia to southern New York state.

Tornado warnings were issued on the west and north side of both Richmond and Raleigh Thursday afternoon, but it’s unclear if any twisters touched down or caused damage.

Thursday’s Storm Threat

Whereas the Storm Prediction Center declared the Wednesday storm threat a level 4 out of 5 across the South, Thursday’s threat in the East was placed at level 2 or 3 out of 5.

Washington and Baltimore were upgraded from level 2 to level 3 “enhanced risk” zone Thursday afternoon.

The Storm Prediction Center cautions that “damaging thunderstorm gusts and a few tornadoes are possible.”

How the storms will take shape

Downpours left over from Wednesday’s thunderstorms over the Deep South were ongoing Thursday morning from the Florida Panhandle north through the central Appalachians, with a few scattered showers in Upstate New York and northwest Pennsylvania. Warm air will squeeze north ahead of an approaching cold front, which was draped south of a low pressure system in Michigan and stretched to near Mobile, Ala., and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Eastern United States was under cloud cover Thursday, blocking sunshine and inhibiting daytime heating. Still, most areas in New Jersey and those south of the Mason-Dixon Line will climb into the 70s. That will set the stage for scattered afternoon thunderstorms.

Meanwhile, an energetic dip in the jet stream will be cruising overhead, with fierce winds racing highway speeds a mile or two above the ground. That would impact wind shear, or a change of wind speed/direction with height, onto storms, allowing one or two of them to rotate. Otherwise, storms could mix strong jet stream momentum to the surface in the form of damaging wind gusts.

Storm evolution and impacts

Storms are expected to fire up around or shortly after lunchtime in southwest Virginia west of Interstate 81 and in the Carolina Piedmont. By mid-to late afternoon, they will have expanded and intensified.

Low-topped clusters and segments with a straight-line wind threat are most probable, though there is the possibility of an isolated supercell or rotating thunderstorm.

It’s worth noting that some of the storms, especially in northern areas, might not produce much thunder and lightning. Still, they’ll be fast-moving, so it’s a good idea to head indoors immediately if a warning is issued for your location.

Storms will weaken with sunset and merge into a line of downpours and embedded rumbles that will span the East Coast, pushing off the Outer Banks of the Carolinas around midnight and exiting Cape Cod and the Islands during the early morning hours. More tranquil weather builds into the Lower 48 before the next chance of severe weather brews over the Plains toward Monday and Tuesday of next week.

Storm damage in the South

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center received more than 230 reports of wind damage across a dozen states Wednesday into Thursday morning. Louisiana, eastern Arkansas, Mississippi, central and western Alabama, western Tennessee and the western Florida Panhandle were hit hardest. Ahead of the storm outbreak, the Storm Prediction Center had declared a level 4 out of 5 risk for dangerous storms that lived up to their billing.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Weather Service warned of a confirmed tornado near Jackson, Miss., as radar detected debris lofted into the air. Social media footage showed damage in the city.

The storm threat escalated dramatically after dark Wednesday, particularly in southern Mississippi and Alabama.

Areas near McLain, Miss., about 30 miles southeast of Hattiesburg, were struck by a tornado between 8 and 9 pm Central time, with multiple reports of roof damage and downed trees and power lines. Toomsuba, Miss., about 100 miles to the north, was also hit by a twister; the National Weather Service had issued a particularly dangerous situation tornado warning for the town, cautioning of a confirmed large and dangerous tornado.

Tornado struck Marengo County in west-central Alabama between 9 and 10 pm local time, destroying multiple mobile homes.

Numerous tornado warnings were also issued south and southwest of Birmingham between 10 and 11 pm Central time, including a particularly dangerous situation tornado warning for “a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” for north-central Chilton and southeastern Bibb counties. One person was injured from this twister and a manufactured home was overturned, according to the Weather Service.

Between 11 pm and midnight, the Weather Service confirmed a tornado just south of Mobile. Between 10 and 11 pm, the Weather Service had also issued a warning for a confirmed tornado to the northeast of Biloxi, Miss.

Multiple tornadoes tore through the Florida Panhandle on Thursday morning, including the deadly twister near Chipley, which is in Washington County, just before 4:30 am Central time.

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