At least 11 people died and dozens were injured in apparently strong tornadoes that swept through the Dallas area and caused substantial damage this weekend, while five people died in a flash flood in Illinois.
It was the latest of a succession of powerful weather events across the country—from heavy snow in New Mexico, west Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle—to flash flooding in parts of the Plains and Midwest.
Days of tumultuous weather have led to 34 deaths overall—those in Texas and Illinois, plus 18 total in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.
The full extent of damage along a nearly 40-mile stretch near Dallas isn’t yet known, though there were reports of storms and tornadoes blowing the roofs off homes, mangling vehicles, damaging churches, downing power lines and toppling trees.
National Weather Service survey teams headed out Sunday to determine the number and strength of the tornadoes, of which meteorologist Matt Bishop believed there were multiple. Bishop says the tornado outbreak at this time of the year for North Texas occurs “from time to time … but it’s certainly not something that happens regularly.”
In the town of Rowlett, City Manager Brian Funderburk said Sunday morning that 23 people were injured, but that there were no deaths and no reports of missing people. The weather service said damage indicated it was likely an EF-3 tornado, which has winds up to 165 mph.
Dale Vermurlen lived in a Rowlett neighborhood that sustained heavy damage. His house only had minor damage, but was next to that were flattened.
“I grabbed both dogs by the collars and held on to the toilet. I said `OK this could be it boys.”‘
Homes in the neighborhood that had been searched by emergency responders were marked with a black “X.” In some instances, it looked like homes had been picked up and set back down in a big pile. State troopers were blocking off roads, utility crews were restoring power and people walking around hushed and dazed.
In nearby Garland, about 20 miles northeast of Dallas, Lt. Pedro Barineau said Sunday morning that eight people have died and 15 were injured. The weather service said it was an EF-4 tornado, which is the second-most powerful with winds up to more than 200 mph.
“This is a huge impact on our community and we’re all suffering,” he said of Garland, where about 600 structures were damaged, the majority of which were single-family homes. “Driving around the area, you can see that it’s total devastation.”
Barineau said the tornado hit about 6:45 p.m. across an area of 2 square miles, and was near the intersection of Interstate 30 and George Bush Turnpike, which is a major route in the region. At least three people who died were found in vehicles, said Barineau, who also noted that some cars appeared to be thrown from the interstate, though it wasn’t known whether that was the case for the people found in the vehicles.
Zach Shirley, his twin brother and some guests from out of town went out to eat on Saturday night and got on I-30 at about 1 a.m. Sunday. He said there was lots of congestion that that police had blocked off several exits for reasons that weren’t clear to the 34-year-old from Garland. Shirley spent nearly eight hours on the interstate, and considered leaving his car and walking to his apartment, which was not damaged.
Three other people died in Collin County, about 45 miles northeast of Dallas, according to sheriff’s deputy Chris Havey, although the circumstances were not immediately clear.
On the other side of Texas, a snowstorm accompanied by plunging temperatures, was expected to leave up to 16 inches of snow in West Texas, much of New Mexico and parts of northwest Oklahoma through Sunday evening, according to NWS meteorologist Brendon Rubin-Oster in College Park, Maryland.
“It’s going to be quite dangerous for anyone exposed to these elements,” he said said.
In far West Texas, up to four inches of snow fell overnight in the Alpine area, with foot-deep drifts reported.
Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said the snow caused 178 weather-related accidents by Saturday night, with about 58 involving people with injuries. Officials also shut down a stretch of Interstate 40 leading to the Texas border because of hazardous driving conditions. The National Weather Service said snow drifts more than 7 feet high have been reported.
A southwestern Illinois coroner said three adults and two children drowned when the vehicle they were riding in was swept away and sank in a rain-swollen creek at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Marion County Coroner Troy Cannon said dive teams recovered the car from the water several hours later and the bodies of the victims _ who were from Kentucky _ from the car.
In the Southeast, two more deaths linked to weather were reported Saturday in Mississippi, bringing that state’s death toll from severe weather over Christmas to 10. Late Saturday, one death was reported in Alabama.
Flash flooding closed roads across Alabama and trapped motorists in rapidly rising waters. Ranager Tyler and his son waded into flood water Christmas night and used rope to pull an 11-year-old boy out after his family’s car was swept away near Pinson, about 15 miles northeast of Birmingham.
The flooding is the result of heavy downpours that have thrashed the southeastern U.S. since Wednesday, bringing record rainfalls in some areas.
(Associated Press writers Reese Dunklin in Dallas; Michael Graczyk in Houston; Paul J. Weber in Austin; Chevel Johnson in New Orleans; and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report. )