HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — Mulester Johnson was with relatives when a fierce storm roared through this small town and tore the back of his house from its foundation, tossed trees onto pickup trucks and leveled brick walls.
On Wednesday night, he opened the door to what had been a bedroom and looked past his disheveled belongings to clusters of broken trees in the backyard. The room’s walls had been blown away.
“This right here is a mess, but I can’t complain because we’re blessed,” he said.
Luckily, no one was injured. Elsewhere around the South, the spring-like storms mixed with unseasonably warm weather that made the perfect recipe for destruction. The storms killed seven people, injured scores of others and destroyed dozens of cars, homes and businesses. The line of storms moved east and brought heavy rain and thunderstorms to Atlanta and the Carolinas, but the threat of tornadoes eased. From Alabama to New York, much of the country felt unusually warm temperatures in the 70s on Christmas Eve.
Along Mississippi Highway 7 close to Johnson’s house, headlights from passing cars illuminated downed tree limbs, slabs of plasterboard and wooden beams that had been turned into projectiles.
Pieces of metal tangled in drooping power lines, dangling precariously alongside the road. The smell of freshly overturned dirt and trees lingered in the air as emergency crews tended to downed lines.
From Mississippi to Michigan, thousands of people were without power.
The storms killed at least three in Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy in Holly Springs who died when the storm picked up and tossed the car he was riding in, officials said. Three were killed in Tennessee and one in Arkansas.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said they had at least 40 injuries, “and some of those are quite serious.”
A tornado damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Planes at a small airport overturned and an unknown number of people were injured.
“I’m looking at some horrific damage right now,” Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett said Wednesday. “Sheet metal is wrapped around trees; there are overturned airplanes; a building is just destroyed.”
Sean Wagner, an amateur storm chaser, shot video of a tornado in Holly Springs and said he had to warn two families that had stopped under an overpass.
“I got out of my car and told the families they weren’t safe, I showed them my radar, it showed that they were close to the path if the tornado. I told them to leave because if I was there as a storm chaser, it wasn’t safe,” he said.
In Benton County, Mississippi, where at least two deaths occurred and at least two people were missing, crews were searching house-by-house to make sure residents were accounted for.
Pope County, Arkansas, Sheriff Shane Jones said 18-year-old Michaela Remus was killed when a tree crashed into her bedroom Wednesday. The woman and her 1 ½-year-old sister were sleeping in a bedroom of the house near Atkins, about 65 miles northwest of Little Rock, when winds uprooted the tree that crashed through the roof. Rescuers pulled the toddler safely from the home.
“It’s terrible that this happened, especially at Christmas,” Jones said.
The threat of severe weather just before Christmas is unusual, but not unprecedented, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center. Exactly a year ago, twisters hit southeast Mississippi, killing five people and injuring dozens of others.
Associated Press writers Josh Replogle in Miami; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Claudia Lauer in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; contributed to this report.