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Christmas Day storms spread snow, tornadoes across US; two dead

A large part of the country didn't have to dream of a white Christmas. It got one. Mike Seidel of The Weather Channel reports.

A major winter storm pummeled large parts of the U.S. on Tuesday, killing two people as it dropped heavy snow on the Southern Plains and spinning off damaging winds and tornadoes in warmer areas southward. A state of emergency was declared in Mississippi.

Treacherous holiday travel was expected to become even more of an ordeal by the time the storm arrives in the Northeast later this week.

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A weather map of the U.S. looked like a child's coloring book, with a variety of advisories, watches and warnings spreading across the middle and the southern half of the country:

  • Blizzard warnings were in force for parts of Indiana, Texas and Oklahoma. Two people were killed Tuesday when high winds toppled trees in Tomball, Texas, near Houston, and in Richland Parish, La., while 21 cars and tractor-trailers crashed in a massive pileup on roads coated with freezing rain in Oklahoma City.
  • Winter storm warnings stretched from those states north and east to Arkansas and Ohio. Almost 150,000 customers were without power late Tuesday across Arkansas, Entergy Arkansas said.
  • At least 31 tornadoes were believed to have been spotted across the South from Texas to Alabama, the National Weather Service reported. Numerous tornado-related injuries were reported in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, but, remarkably, none of them were believed to be serious, according to preliminary reports.

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Hundreds more flights canceled as Christmas storm moves east

The worst of the tornadoes hit Tuesday afternoon in Mobile, Ala., where about 21,500 customers remained without power Tuesday night, Alabama Power said.

Witnesses report significant storm damage in Mobile, Alabama. WPMI's John Dzenitis reports.

"The people of Alabama are strong," state governor Robert Bentley said in a statement released by his office. "We will recover together. First responders are doing a tremendous job helping people in areas impacted by the storms, and those efforts will continue."

The statement added: "I also want to offer my prayers for everyone impacted by these storms. We will work on the state level to do everything we can to help communities across the state."

Rick Cauley's family was hosting relatives for Christmas when the tornado sirens went off in Mobile. Not taking any chances, he and his wife, Ashley, hustled everyone down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School in Mobile.

It turns out, that wasn't the place to head.

"As luck would have it, that's where the tornado hit," Cauley told The Associated Press. "The pressure dropped and the ears started popping and it got crazy for a second." They were all fine, though the school was damaged, as were a church and several homes, but officials say no one was seriously injured. 

Mike Kittrell / AP

Firefighters go door-to-door on North Carlen Street in the Midtown section of Mobile, Ala., after a tornado touched down Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012.

Suspected tornadoes also damaged homes and other structures Tuesday in or near Centreville, McNeill, Maxie and Janice in Mississippi; and in or near Luverne, Wilmer and Riderwood in Alabama, according to The Weather Channel.

A state of emergency was declared in Mississippi late Tuesday by governor Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told NBC News in a statement. Homes, roads and businesses were damaged in at least nine counties.

Greg Forbes, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel, said thunderstorms with damaging winds and hail would make their way across the Deep South into Wednesday.

By the time it leaves the New England coast Friday, the storm will have left snow from coast to coast.

The National Weather Service said blizzard conditions were possible in parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, which could get 4 to 7 inches of snow. Whiteout conditions were forecast for stretches of Interstate 44 in Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas into the evening.

Ten to 15 inches of snow was expected in parts of Indiana. In Indianapolis, Mayor Greg Ballard ordered "non-essential" workers to stay home Wednesday.

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With more than 93.3 million people expected to take to the road during the holiday season, according to AAA, many travelers made last-minute changes of plans and decided to hit the road before the snow hit.


"You definitely have to worry about everyone while you're driving, especially out here," Dallas resident Jerdal Whitaker told NBC 5 of Dallas. "We're not used to the weather that comes, especially when it's ugly, so you definitely have to drive slow."

Travel delays could persist into Thursday morning along the East Coast because of "low clouds, wind, and potential changeover to light snow," The Weather Channel reported.

More than 500 U.S. flights had been canceled by 11 p.m. ET, the travel site flightaware.com reported. Many of them were into and out of Dallas, where as much as 3 inches of snow fell Tuesday, NBC 5 of Dallas reported.

NBCDFW.com: White Christmas brings delays, cancellations to DFW airport

A low-pressure system intensified as it moved across the Southern Plains toward the Lower Mississippi Valley on Tuesday. That sucked in arctic air from the north and the west to mix with warmer, wetter air in the southern half of the country, the National Weather Service said. 

The system is forecast to track east-northeast, getting stronger by the hour, as it moves into the Mid-Atlantic. From there, snow and freezing rain are expected to spread quickly northeast, reaching New England by Thursday morning. As much as a foot of snow was forecast later in the week across western and upstate New York.

Ioanna Dafermou and Meredith Placko of NBC News, Jim Cantore, Greg Forbes and Scott Kurtz of The Weather Channel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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