By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS AND JONATHAN MATTISE
AP – A line of severe storms packing isolated tornadoes and high winds ripped across the Deep South overnight, toppling trees and power lines and leaving homes and businesses damaged as the vast weather front raced across several states.
At least two confirmed tornadoes injured several people Wednesday, damaged homes and businesses and downed power lines in Mississippi and Tennessee after earlier storm damage in Arkansas, Missouri and Texas.
About 185,000 customers were without electricity Thursday morning in the wake of the storm along a band of states: Mississippi and Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio and Michigan, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utilities.
The worst of the weather Thursday morning appeared to be at the southern end of the storm front, which was expected to bring heavy rain and high winds all along the U.S. East Coast later in the day. Much of the Florida Panhandle was under a tornado watch, according to the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.
No deaths had been reported from the storms as of early Thursday, authorities said. But widespread damage was reported in the Jackson, Tennessee, area as a tornado warning was in effect. “Significant damage” occurred to a nursing home near Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office in Jackson, said Madison County Emergency Management Director Jason Moore.
In Nashville, Tennessee, paneling fell five stories from the side of a downtown hotel Wednesday evening and onto a roof of a building below. The fire department warned the debris could become airborne as high winds continued, and some hotel guests were moved to other parts of the building due to concerns that the roof would become unstable. No injuries were immediately associated with the collapse.
Elsewhere, a warehouse roof collapsed as the storms moved through Southaven, Mississippi, near Memphis, police said. The building had been evacuated and no injuries were reported.
The Mississippi Senate suspended its work Wednesday as weather sirens blared during a tornado watch in downtown Jackson. Some employees took shelter in the Capitol basement.
Rander P. Adams said he and his wife, Janice Delores Adams, were in their home near downtown Jackson when severe weather blew through during a tornado warning Wednesday afternoon. He said their lights flashed and a large window exploded just feet from his wife as she tried to open their front door.
“The glass broke just as if someone threw a brick through it,” he said. “I advised her then, ‘Let’s go to the back of the house.’”
Adams said the storm toppled trees in a nearby park, and a large tree across the street from their house split in half. “We were blessed,” he said. “Instead of falling toward the house, it fell the other way.”
Earlier Wednesday, a tornado that struck Springdale, Arkansas, and the adjoining town of Johnson, about 145 miles (235 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, about 4 a.m. injured seven people, two critically, said Washington County, Arkansas, Emergency Management Director John Luther.
The National Weather Service said that tornado would be rated “at least EF-2,” which would mean wind speeds reached 111-135 mph (178-217 kph).
“Search and rescue teams have been deployed, as there are significant damages and injuries,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.
In northwest Missouri, an EF-1 tornado with wind speeds around 90 mph (145 kph) struck St. Joseph on Tuesday night, damaging two homes. Another EF-1 tornado with wind speeds around 100 mph (160 kph) touched down briefly before dawn Wednesday in a rural subdivision east of Dallas, damaging two roofs, the weather service reported.
Strong winds in Louisiana overturned semitrailers, peeled the roof from a mobile home, sent a tree crashing into a home and knocked down power lines, according to weather service forecasters, who didn’t immediately confirm any tornadoes in the state.
Firefighters, meanwhile, have been trying to get handle on a wildfire spreading near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, amid mandatory evacuations as winds whipped up ahead of the approaching storm front.
The fire, which was not contained, had expanded to about 250 acres (more than 100 hectares) as of Wednesday afternoon. One person was injured, and a plume of smoke rose above one community not far from where 2016 wildfires ravaged the tourism town of Gatlinburg, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying about 2,500 buildings.
Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Miss., and Mattise from Nashville, Tennessee; many other Associated Press journalists contributed to this report.