December 25th , 2012 9:38 am Leave a comment

Winter storms, tornado threats for Christmas in US

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Forecasts of blinding snow, sleet and freezing rain threatened to complicate Christmas Day travel around the nation’s midsection Tuesday as several Gulf Coast states braced for a chance of twisters, high winds and powerful thunderstorms.

A blizzard watch was posted for parts of Indiana and western Kentucky for storms expected to unfold Tuesday amid predictions of up to 4 to 7 inches of snow in coming hours. Much of Oklahomaand Arkansas braced under a winter storm warning of an early mix of rain and sleet forecast to eventually turn to snow.

Some mountainous areas of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains could get up to 10 inches of snow amid warnings travel could become “very hazardous or impossible” in the northern tier of the state from near whiteout conditions, the National Weather Service said.

After dawn Tuesday, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safetysaid bridges, overpasses and highways in several counties were already becoming slick and hazardous. Also, Kathleen O’Shea with Oklahoma Gas and Electric said the utility was tracking the storm system to see where repair crews might be needed among nearly 800,000 customers in Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

Elsewhere, areas of east Texas and Louisiana braced for possible thunderstorms as forecasters eyed a developing storm front expected to spread across the Gulf Coast to the Florida Panhandle, raising the threat of any tornadoes.

Quarter-sized hail reported early Tuesday in western Louisiana was expected to be just the start of a severe weather threat on the Gulf Coast, said meteorologist Mike Efferson at the weather service office in Slidell, La. He told The Associated Press by phone on Tuesday that Lake Charles, La., was placed under a tornado warning and a tornado watch was in effect over a wider area of southeast and south-central Louisiana until 2 p.m. EST.

Storms expected during the day Tuesday along the Gulf Coast could bring strong tornadoes or winds up to 70 mph, heavy rain, more large hail and dangerous lightning in Louisiana and Mississippi, Efferson said.

“We have a strong upper level system moving through the area,” he said, adding the combination of warm moist air colliding with a cold front could also produce damaging straight-line winds on the Gulf Coast. “The real threats are going to be damaging winds and storms.”

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant urged residents to be alert.

“Please plan now for how you will receive a severe weather warning, and know where you will go when it is issued. It only takes a few minutes, and it will help everyone have a safe Christmas,” Bryant said.

Ten storm systems in the last 50 years have spawned at least one Christmastime tornado with winds of 113 mph or more in the South, said Chris Vaccaro, a National Weather Service spokesman in Washington, via email.

The most lethal were the storms of Dec. 24-26, 1982, when 29 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi killed three people and injured 32; and those of Dec. 24-25, 1964, when two people were killed and about 30 people injured by 14 tornadoes in seven states.

In Alabama, the director of the Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, said he has briefed both local officials and Gov. Robert Bentley on plans for dealing with a possible outbreak of storms.

No day is good for severe weather, but Faulkner said Christmas adds extra challenges because people are visiting unfamiliar areas and often thinking more of snow than possible twisters.

“We are trying to get the word out through our media partners and through social media that people need to be prepared,” Faulkner said

During the night, flog blanketed highways at times in the Southeast, including arteries in Atlanta where motorists slowed as a precaution. Fog advisories were posted from Alabama through the Carolinas into southwestern Virginia.

Several communities in Louisiana went ahead with the annual Christmas Eve lighting more than 100 towering log teepees for annual bonfires to welcome Pere Noel along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. That decision came after fire chiefs and local officials decided to go ahead with the tradition after an afternoon conference call with the National Weather Service.

In California, after a brief reprieve across the northern half of the state on Monday, wet weather was expected to make another appearance on Christmas Day. Flooding and snarled holiday traffic were expected in Southern California.

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