Dallas: Texas reeled from rare December tornadoes on Monday, as days of storms battering a vast region stretching from the southwestern US to Canada claimed at least 43 lives.
Hundreds of flights across the area have been cancelled, and with portions of major highways flooded, the storm system is wreaking havoc in holiday travel plans for millions of Americans.
The bad weather, or the threat of it, prompted the governors of Missouri and New Mexico to declare a state of emergency for their states.
Flash floods killed at least 13 people in Missouri and Illinois.
In Missouri, emergency workers have evacuated residents from their homes and conducted dozens of water rescues, Governor Jay Nixon said on Sunday. He said at least eight people had been killed and numerous roadways had been closed.
Nixon declared a state of emergency, saying continued rains would make already widespread flooding conditions worse.
The National Weather Service is warning of blizzards, freezing rain and flash floods in the next days, all part of a powerful storm system fuelled by unseasonably warm air that began in the deep south last Wednesday.
The NWS said Monday that 21 states — from New Mexico to as far north as Michigan — are under a weather watch or warning as part of the storm system.
The governors of New Mexico, Texas and Missouri declared states of emergency for all or parts of their states to handle storm damage on Sunday. Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia earlier took similar measures.
Vehicles blown off
In Texas, at least 11 people were killed in the Dallas area over the weekend by tornadoes, including one packing winds of up to 322km/h). The twister hit the city of Garland, killing eight people and blowing vehicles off highways.
“It is total devastation,” Garland Police spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Barineau said. “It is a very difficult time to be struck by such a horrible storm the day after Christmas.” Three other deaths were reported in the Dallas metropolitan area, the United States’ fourth most populous with about 7 million residents. Scores of people were injured in the region and officials estimated some 800 homes may have been damaged.
Powerful tornadoes are a staple of spring and summer in central states but occur less frequently in winter, according to US weather data Three tornadoes were reported in Arkansas on Sunday, the weather service said, but there were no initial reports of significant injuries or damage.
The service has issued tornado watches and warnings for areas in that state, as well as in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi.
A tornado watch means a storm is likely, while a warning means a storm or storms have been sighted.
The storms came on the heels of tornadoes that hit two days before Christmas, killing at least 18 people, including 10 in Mississippi.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said his office had declared Dallas County and three nearby counties disaster areas. He also warned people to be wary of snow in western parts of the state and rivers spilling their banks in other places.
The National Weather Service issued severe weather advisories for large parts of the central United States, including a blizzard warning for parts of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and a flash flood watch stretching from Texas to Indiana.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency for the entire state due to a winter storm that had dumped up to two feet of snow by Sunday night.
The New Mexico City of Roswell bested its one-day snowfall record, receiving 12.3 inches by Sunday evening, the Weather Service said.
The bad weather forced the cancellation of nearly 1,500 flights in the nation on Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware.com. About half of the cancelled flights were in Dallas, a major US flight hub.
Hardest-hit was the Dallas suburb of Garland, where authorities confirmed eight fatalities after a tornado packing winds of up to 320km/h bore down on the city.
City officials said this is only the second time since 1950 that such a powerful tornado struck the area.
Aerial footage showed rows of flattened homes, while others had roofs blown off and windows shattered. Some 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed, officials said.
“We’re going to look at every house and every car to try to make sure we find everybody,” Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told CNN.
Tornadoes are common in the US Midwest in the spring, but rare during winter.
Three other storm-related fatalities occurred northeast of Dallas, the Collin County sheriff’s department said.
State governor Greg Abbott told reporters that northwest Texas was battling harsh wintry conditions, with snow and ice causing power outages, while central Texas was facing flood risks and the east was bracing for the possibility of more tornadoes.
The storm dumped rare heavy snow in eastern New Mexico, a situation Governor Susana Martinez described as “dire.”
Martinez activated the National Guard for disaster assistance, and urged residents to stay off the roads.
The governor reported more than 16 inches of snow has fallen in parts of the state, “with drifts as high as eight feet, making roads impassable in several counties.”
In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon said that at least eight fatalities due to flash flooding were reported in his state.
“I urge Missourians in flood-affected areas to stay alert, avoid travel if possible and never drive into a flooded roadway,” he said.
In nearby Mississippi, where Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency to deal with flooding, “severe storms” are forecast through Monday, the state Emergency Management Agency said.
The agency also reported 10 storm-related deaths.
Illinois reported five deaths, while eight others were killed in southern states on and before Christmas Day, including one in Arkansas and six in Tennessee.
And one person drowned Sunday in Alabama floodwaters, local officials said.
The NWS forecast blizzards and heavy snow for eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma and northern Texas, with snow expected to eventually reach the tornado-damaged Dallas area.
The temperature in Dallas on Saturday, when the twisters struck, was an unseasonable 82 Fahrenheit (28 Celsius) — but weather forecasters said it will plunge to 32⁰F (0⁰C) by late Monday.
“A major winter storm system will continue to bring a plethora of weather impacts ranging from heavy snow and blizzard conditions to severe weather and flooding,” the NWS said early Monday.
“The storm system will gradually pull away by Tuesday, but flooding and treacherous travel could linger into midweek.”
Conditions are especially perilous in places unused to heavy snowfall such as New Mexico, where urban areas lack snow removal equipment, and few drivers are experienced at driving safely in snow and ice.
To deal with icy conditions pounding their state, Oklahoma closed some roads and sent out trucks to salt major arteries, local media reported Monday.
More than 200 flights were cancelled when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop for the Dallas International Airport on Sunday.
Flights were delayed and cancelled at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma, as in other airports across the affected region.