SHUQUALAK, Miss. - A strong spring storm that socked the Midwest with ice and heavy, wet snow made its way east, raking the South with tornadoes Thursday, with three deaths blamed on the rough weather and thousands of people without power.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said Thursday that one person died and several people were injured after a reported tornado struck Kemper County in the far-eastern part of the state.
At Contract Fabricators Inc. in Kemper County, where authorities said one person died and another was injured, bent pieces of tin hung from the heavily damaged building. A tractor-trailer was twisted and overturned. Debris from the business was strewn through the woods across the street.
Tabatha Lott, a dispatcher in Noxubee County, said there were "numerous reports of injuries" in the town of Shuqualak, though it wasn't immediately clear how many. Flynn also said there are reports of damaged buildings and many power outages.
The T-shaped system first swept across the nation's midsection Wednesday night and pummeled portions of Missouri, where the National Weather Service said Thursday that an EF-2 tornado appears to have damaged dozens of homes in the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood. That category of tornado generally packs winds of 113 to 157 mph.
Derek Cody, an amateur storm chaser who works at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, just south of Shuqualak, told The Associated Press that he drove north to the small town to try to catch a glimpse of the tornado.
He said he got out of his car on U.S. 45 just as the twister was approaching the highway, only to be hit by a strong gust of wind moving into the storm that almost knocked him over.
"I kind of sat there and hoped it would cross right in front of me," Cody said. "It was just a black mass that moved across the road."
Cody said that the center of Shuqualak, an eastern Mississippi town of 500 people, was unaffected. But he said a gas station and about 10 or so houses west of the town center were damaged. He said one house was "completely flattened" with debris blown across the road.
As the system was moving through the Southeast, high winds knocked over trees and power lines in rural west Alabama and eastern Mississippi. About 50 school systems in central and north Alabama sent students home early, and a few government offices and businesses also closed early.
In Shuqualak, Kathy Coleman, 57, said she was outside her home signing for a delivery of her dialysis medication when the deliveryman hustled her back in to the house. Coleman said she, the deliveryman and her housekeeper huddled in the bathroom as the storm hit.
"All I could hear was trees breaking and falling and glass. He started praying and I started praying. Thank God he was here," she said.
The line of severe storms was trudging east toward Georgia, where the world's best golfers are playing in the Masters at Augusta National. The weather was warm and sunny on the first day of the four-day tournament, but severe storms were forecast overnight.