2 dead as storms, tornadoes rip through Gulf states

Pastor/Reverend Frederick Matthews watches Eugene Trice, 38, knock down bricks from the wall of the New Mount Bethel Baptist Church which suffered weather damage in Kenner, La., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. A massive storm system caused damage throughout the region. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

KENNER, La. (AP) — A suspected tornado ripped through a Louisiana recreational vehicle park Tuesday, leaving a mangled mess of smashed trailers and killing at least one person, officials said. In neighboring Mississippi, authorities said one person died when a possible tornado hit a mobile home.

St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin, speaking on local television, said there was definitely one fatality and possibly another victim at the RV park in Convent. Martin says authorities are still looking for people believed to be trapped under the debris.

He said he could not give an accurate number of people injured but that he saw at least 25 people with injuries — some who were able to walk out while others were more severe.

“We never had anything like this, we never had this many people injured in one event, and so much destruction in one event,” Martin told WVUE news.

In Mississippi, officials are still sorting through reports of damage to some buildings, but Vann Byrd of the Lamar County Emergency Management Agency said one person died in a mobile home west of Purvis. Byrd didn’t release the person’s name.

Forecasters spotted debris on the ground Tuesday afternoon that is a typical hallmark of a tornado, said David Cox, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pearl, Mississippi. Storm damage was also reported at a second location in the county that appeared to be caused by the severe storm system.

The reported tornadoes are part of a line of severe weather and storms that has ripped through Louisiana. Earlier Tuesday a reported tornado caused some damage but no injuries near New Orleans’ main airport.

Emergency officials and the National Weather Service said the reported tornado was spotted near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the suburban city of Kenner. It was believed to have touched down in a nearby field.

Ronald Myers lives across the street from New Mount Bethel Baptist Church, where and his wife are members. He recalled the sky darkening and high winds — he believes it was a tornado. They came outside when they heard the church’s alarm go off.

“My wife came over to turn the alarm off and she came back home and said, ‘Baby, the wall behind the church has done fell down,'” said Myers. He said he struggled to keep his footing in the wind, and it nearly knocked his wife down: “I weigh 242 pounds. If it could move me, it was moving.”

High winds sheared the brick and mortar from the rear wall of the church.

Severe weather watches were expected to last into the evening in the state.

In neighboring Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, in anticipation of severe weather.

High winds ripped off roofs and downed trees around the greater New Orleans area. Other suspected tornadoes were reported north of Lake Pontchartrain and west of the city in St. Charles and Ascension parishes.

In Kenner, cars were reported damaged at a parking lot near the airport. In Prairieville, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, heavy damage was reported to some buildings, including a fitness gym.

More than 6 million people in parts of five states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia — were in an area of moderate risk for a few strong tornadoes and other severe weather Tuesday, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, estimated.

Meanwhile, schools across south Louisiana and Mississippi canceled classes ahead of the storm, sending tens of thousands of students home early to avoid having buses on the road when severe storms arrived.

Forecasters said about half of Alabama had a moderate risk of severe weather including tornadoes. On Tuesday afternoon, an emergency management official in west Alabama said a storm has knocked down trees and damaged at least one home near the rural town of Reform.

Ken Gibson, emergency management director in Pickens County, said no one was injured in the storm Tuesday.

The storms began as a line of fierce thunderstorms moved across Texas, raising the risk of tornadoes, hail and damaging winds around several states, forecasters said.

The South Texas storms left thousands of people without power and windows broken after hail the size of golf balls damaged some buildings, but no one was injured after the bad weather Monday night, according to the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office in that state.

In Alabama and Georgia, forecasters issued flash flood watches ahead of the storm system, which was expected to drop 1 to 2 inches of rain, with higher amounts possible in some areas. The warnings, which covered large parts of both states, were expected to be in effect through Wednesday afternoon.

In Arkansas, heavy rain, powerful winds and some snow were forecast for parts of the state Tuesday and Wednesday. The National Weather Service in Little Rock described the storm system as a “three-headed monster” on its Facebook page.

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