Tornado deaths in Mississippi an ugly prelude to bad U.S. holiday travel weather

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A strong storm near the city of Amite, Louisiana, damaged 15 homes near the city on Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014, according to local emergency management. No injuries were immediately been reported.

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(CNN) — This Christmas, people will grieve and heal in southern Mississippi. They will clear rubble and restore power lines ripped apart by a tornado system that killed four people and packed an emergency room with dozens of injured.

Though Tuesday’s deadly whirlwinds were isolated to a swath near the Louisiana line, across the country, rough weather is sweeping for hundreds of miles, while roads and airways fill with holiday travelers.

When Santa bellows on Christmas Eve “On Donner! On Blitzen!” the heavens will harken. The two reindeer names are German and mean “thunder” and “lightning.”

And laden clouds will unleash rain and snow across much of the continental United States, the National Weather Service says. It predicts “heavy rainfall and flooding, and heavy snow from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes through Wednesday.”

St. Nick may need an umbrella.

AAA: 98.6 million travelers

Other holiday travelers may be better served with caution — and special weather tire treads, depending on their region — or a change of plans.

AAA projects that 98.6 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles this holiday season, a 4% increase from last year. They can take advantage of plummeting gas prices — which, averaging $2.25 nationwide, are down 69 cents a gallon from a year ago.

Christmas Day could be the better time to embark on a family visit.

The sun should return to a broad section of southern and central U.S. climes on Thursday, and gentle snow will lay down a white Christmas on doorsteps from the California mountains through parts of the Midwest.

Mountain states should see much heavier snow, and rain and slush will spray patches of gray melancholy on the holiday scenery in the Northeast Wednesday and Thursday.

Four killed

Early Wednesday, a tornado watch lingered in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Father west, tornadoes the storm system spawned left death and rubble in their wake.

Civil defense sirens howl from the distance on a video posted to YouTube Tuesday purportedly of a tornado in Mississippi that day. “See it spinning?” a woman asks another.

Something on the grainy image seems to be circling in a mass of dark gray clouds on the nearby horizon.

Tornadoes are not unusual this time of year in the Deep South, CNN meteorologist Karen Maginnis. “Actually, this is a secondary peak for tornado activity. The first is during the spring months.”

Tuesday’s storm tore to pieces a mobile home in the countryside of Jones County, Mississippi, killing two people, Sheriff Alex Hodge said.

“There were other brick and mortar homes that had major damage, but we have no other injuries reported,” he said. The storm also wrecked a church.

A few dozen miles to the southwest, two more people died in storms in Marion County, police said. The hospital overflowed with injured people.

50 injured, daycare hit

“Fifty patients were seen in the ER today because of the storm,” said Marion General Hospital spokesperson Millie Swan. “We are operating on generator power. Columbia is completely out of power.”

At least 6,300 households lost power, and roads were cut off. Emergency operators have heard of people injured and trapped. Swan expects more injured patients to come into the hospital in coming days, once they can make it in.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant issued a state of emergency for Marion and Jones counties on Tuesday.

On a highway in between the two counties, the storm damaged a child daycare center, but spared the children inside.

Unharmed, they were moved to a nearby bank building.

In nearby Louisiana, not far from the town of Amite, authorities said a wind storm damaged 15 homes.

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