Central U.S. storm brings tornadoes, flooding and heavy snow

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Another in a series of powerful winter storms in recent weeks crosses the central United States and heads into the Great Lakes on Tuesday. It brings a multi-pronged punch of heavy snowfall and gusty winds to the Plains and Midwest, and severe thunderstorms and flooding to the South.

The storm has already dropped nearly 2 feet of windblown snow across parts of South Dakota and brought torrential rains and flooding areas across a wide swath of the central United States. A handful of tornadoes were also triggered, with more forecast to come, in addition to the threat of damaging straight-line winds.

It’s the same storm system that hit California over the weekend with record rainfall in the Bay Area and extremely heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It has since redeveloped east of the Continental Divide.

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A tornado watch stretched from central Tennessee west of Alabama, south to Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana Tuesday at noon through evening. It follows previous watches to the west along a cold front advancing east through the south.

Multiple tornadoes were confirmed early Tuesday in Tennessee and Mississippi, based on radar detection of debris soared in the air. At least two more tornadoes were confirmed late Monday in Oklahoma and Louisiana with others suspected in Arkansas. Most of these tornadoes were short-lived and did not affect populated areas, but some damage was reported in Jessieville, Ark., including at a school.

Several dozen reports of damaging straight-line winds and a few large hail incidents were also recorded by the weather service from northern Louisiana to southern Ohio between Monday and Tuesday morning.

Tuesday’s most widespread storm hazard is for damaging gusts fueled by intense high-altitude winds driven downward by thunderstorms in an area from southern Louisiana to eastern Tennessee.

There is a high risk of tornadoes, a few of which could be strong, in the area from eastern Louisiana to southern parts of Mississippi and Alabama. In this region, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center declared a Level 3 out of 5 “increased risk” of dangerous storms.

The threat of a severe storm is fueled by unusually warm and humid air ahead of the cold front. About three dozen records could be at risk Tuesday, centered in the Ohio Valley but as far west as St. Louis, as far east as Washington, DC and as far south as Louisiana. Up to 100 record warm lows could fall across the eastern United States on Wednesday morning.

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Accumulated snowfall associated with the turning storm system near Omaha Tuesday at noon was concentrated from central Nebraska to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and then into Ontario.

“Thinking of heading to Sioux Falls today?” DON’T!” tweeted Dickinson County Emergency Management Office in northwestern Iowa bordering southern Minnesota. “Highway 9 is impassable west of Rock Rapids and travel on I-90 in southwestern Minnesota is not advised.”

Large portions of Interstate 90, among other arteries, have also since been closed in South Dakota around Sioux Falls and to the west, where up to 18 inches of snowfall have been reported.

The area expected to see the most disruptive snowfall through early Wednesday stretches from northeast Nebraska and southeast South Dakota to southwest Minnesota. Sioux Falls is near the middle of this area and Minneapolis is near the northeast edge.

Additional snowfall can reach 12 to 15 inches in the area above, including about 10 inches in the Twin Cities.

Snowfall of up to 22 inches has already been reported in southeastern South Dakota near Andes Lake Tuesday morning. Nebraska has a 15-inch top ratio in the north-central parts of the state. Rawlins, Wyo., reported 24 inches Monday night. Totals over 4 feet were reported over the weekend: Sundance, Utah, posted 52 inches and Mammoth Mountain, California, 54 inches.

Freezing rain that could leave a dangerous varnish on roads and driveways is also a threat in southeastern Minnesota, northern Iowa and central and northern Wisconsin. Winter weather advisories and ice storm warnings cover this area.

At some point early Tuesday, flash flood warnings stretched in a continuous line from southern Ohio to the Arkansas-Louisiana border, along and ahead of the cold front dragging east. Widespread rain totals of 3 to 5 inches came from these areas.

Forming storms, or those that continue to pass over the same area, brought particularly heavy rainfall rates to northern Kentucky and southeastern Arkansas. Flooding in Kentucky has led to water rescues, including that of a bus carrying school children near Paris in the northeast suburb of Lexington.

Much of the same region threatened by severe thunderstorms is also at risk of excessive rainfall and potential flooding on Tuesday. Much of the south is at level 2 of 4 risk of excessive precipitation, while a smaller level 3 out of 4 “moderate risk” is in place for southern Alabama and part of southwestern Georgia.

“Intense rates as well as potential formation should contribute to the threat for heavy amounts,” the weather service wrote Tuesday morning.

Forecast for Wednesday and Thursday

Between tornadoes and flooding in the south and snow and ice in the Upper Midwest, the worst effects of the storm are expected on Tuesday. By Wednesday, it will sweep to the East Coast, where it will lose some of its punch.

Some lingering snow is possible behind the storm over the Great Lakes.

More severe storms could move across the southeast on Wednesday, stretching from Florida to southern Virginia, but they’re not expected to be as widespread or intense as Tuesday.

In the northeast, the storm system is expected to produce mostly rain showers as it will be too mild for snow or frozen precipitation. The exception will be parts of central and northern Maine where freezing rain will turn to light snow Wednesday evening through Thursday. Parts of Vermont and New Hampshire could see the rain shift to a wintery mix around the same time.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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