A spring-like storm system wrapped the eastern half of the country in a warm, wet and windy embrace Wednesday, spinning off tornadoes and severe wind gusts that have been blamed for two deaths in Arkansas and Mississippi.
The National Weather Service issued a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch for a wide area spanning eastern Arkansas, northwest Mississippi, northeast Louisiana and western Tennessee until 9 p.m. ET — the first such warning anywhere in the country in a year and a half.
Marshall County, Mississippi, Coroner James Anderson said a 7-year-old boy was killed in a van on Highway 7 as severe weather swept through the town of Holly Springs early Wednesday evening. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency confirmed the death and said at least 40 other people were injured as the storm moved swiftly across the state.
In Arkansas, an 18-year-old woman was killed and an 18-month-old child was taken to a hospital after high winds and heavy rain uprooted a tree Wednesday morning and tossed it on a house northeast of Atkins, the Pope County Sheriff’s Office said.
The rainy, gusty conditions — more reminiscent of June than December — spread north into the Midwest. Indiana emergency officials warned that outdoor Christmas decorations could turn into dangerous missiles and advised residents not to bother putting up inflatable decorations.
Even Santa Claus was canceled, as officials in Woodland Township, Ohio, called off their holiday light display Wednesday night at the town’s rec center, NBC station WDTN of Dayton reported. Unfortunately for the town’s children, it was supposed to have marked St. Nicholas’ final appearance at this year’s festival.
Even worse: “We’re really concerned about the additional storms yet to come,” said Danielle Banks, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.
A tornado that Banks called “very large and fast-moving” hit the Bellville neighborhood, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, heavily damaged 15 homes and injured three people, one of them critically, the Coahoma County Central Fire Department told NBC News.
A crop dusting company was “wiped out,” a fire dispatcher said.
Guy Malvezzi, owner of the Shack Up Inn about a mile away, said, “My partner drove down there and called me and said that there were planes that were blown all over the place and pretty much destroyed, and then one plane that looked like it hadn’t been touched at all.”
He added: “It happened so fast that you really didn’t have a chance to be afraid, but yeah, afterward, I was scared as hell.”
Tornado watches stretched Wednesday from Iowa to South Carolina until well into the evening. The University of Alabama-Birmingham suspended operations Wednesday afternoon, leaving only its hospital open, while Nashville, Tennessee, Mayor Megan Barry urged businesses to send their employees home early.
“My first priority is that our citizens are safe,” Barry said. “We have the best chance of making sure that happens if we manage the combination of severe weather and holiday travel by getting people off the roads and into their homes as quickly as possible.”
Capt. William Swan of the Metro Office of Emergency Management said the holiday shopping rush was an added headache.
“We just want people to be very conscious of the weather and try to make this holiday safe as possible,” Swan told NBC station WSMV of Nashville. “It’d be nice if they could get all of their shopping and visiting done before or after the weather event.”
Northeast of Little Rock, lightning struck a delivery van Wednesday morning, setting it on fire, Austin police said.
Officers arrived at the scene to find the driver trapped inside as smoke filled the van and broke the passenger-side window to rescue him, police said. The driver wasn’t injured.
About 1,500 customers were without power across the state early Wednesday evening, electric utility Entergy Arkansas said.
The unseasonably weird weather is yet another manifestation of the unusually strong El Niño setting up shop off the West Coast, meteorologists told NBC News. Much of the eastern half of the country will spend a Christmas Day with temperatures in the 70s.
And it couldn’t come at a worse time, with nearly 1 in 3 of all Americans traveling this week for Christmas.
“We are seeing more than 100 million people will be traveling overall,” Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA, told NBC News. “That’s the first time we’ve ever hit that record.”
More than 90 percent of them will be traveling by car, AAA said, but the weather is sure to bog things down for airline passengers, as well. More than 800 arrivals and departures had already been canceled by 5 p.m. ET at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports in the New York area, and more than 1,000 others had been delayed.
Elsewhere, flooding was the big fear.
Parts of Florence County, South Carolina, were under a flash flood warning beginning Thursday, with Black Creek expected to top flood stage, county emergency officials said.
In Macon, Georgia, U.S. 41, better known as the Industrial Highway, was closed because an 8-foot stretch was washed out, and the Walker Road Landfill in south Bibb County was closed until further notice because of rising water.
Meanwhile, hail approaching the size of tennis balls was reported across parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
At the Outlets of Mississippi, in Pearl, mall managers mobilized after they got a text message blast warning that severe weather was on its way, NBC station WLBT of Jackson reported.
“We have a weather radio in my office and the director of operations’ office,” said Kathy Hackshaw, the mall’s general manager. “The chief of police and I contact each other directly through cellphone.”
But the ominous clouds and the brisk winds weren’t deterring last-minute Christmas shoppers.
“We put our faith in God and go on,” Arnold Brown of Sontag, Mississippi, told WLBT.