WAVERLY, Va. – A powerful storm system swept across the East Coast on Wednesday, killing four people in Virginia and knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in the region.
A day earlier, the system spawned about two dozen tornadoes along the Gulf Coast, damaging hundreds of homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. Three people were killed and dozens were injured.
Forecasters had warned that more than 88 million people were at risk of seeing some sort of severe weather Wednesday. In the Midwest, heavy snow and biting winds led to mass flight cancellations at Chicago airports and school closings in several states.
In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening. The tiny farming town of Waverly in the state’s peanut-growing region took the brunt of the storm. The Virginia State Police said at least five structures were damaged in the town of approximately 2,000.
The names of the three people killed there were not released, but state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said in a statement that they were a 2-year-old child and two men, ages 50 and 26. She said their bodies were found about 300 yards from their mobile home.
Roads leading into the town had to be closed because of downed trees and debris tossed by winds gusting to 60 mph, Geller said. A 7:30 p.m. curfew was imposed so search and rescue teams could go door to door checking on people.
Witnesses said the storm swept through Waverly with little warning.
Timothy Williams said a friend had just come by to take his new car for a drive when the storm hit.
“It picked the car right off the ground, and put it right back on the ground,” said Williams, 44. He said they remained in the car until the storm passed.
The storm blew down electrical wires “in a big ball of fire, thrashing all about each other,” Williams said. He said they both escaped shaken but uninjured.
“I’m just a little nervous and jittery, but overall I’m OK,” Williams said.
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Nick Mobley helps clean up a house owned by a family friend, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, after a storm hit Appomattox County, Va.
(Jill Nance/The News Advance via AP)
In Appomattox County, a funnel cloud left an 8- to 10-mile path of destruction, injuring seven people and killing one man, state police said.
At least 15 structures were destroyed and 25 injuries were reported when the storm passed through Essex County and the town of Tappahannock, about 45 miles northeast of Richmond, state police said. The injuries ranged from minor to serious, but were no confirmed fatalities.
On Tuesday, one of the hardest-hit areas along the Gulf Coast was a recreational vehicle park in the town of Convent, in southern Louisiana. RVs were tossed about and lay on top of wrecked cars and pickup trucks.
Two people were killed there, and 31 injured people were taken to area hospitals, said St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin.
An all-night search of the RV park found no additional injuries or fatalities, the sheriff said. One person was still unaccounted for.
Briaxton Lott, 23, was in the trailer park when the tornado hit. The pad where his trailer once sat was empty and he pointed to the remnants of it about 100 feet away.
“The whole front end came up and slammed back down, and I grabbed up the baby and the next thing I know we just went rolling end over end,” Lott said.
Bill Bunting with Storm Prediction Center estimated 20 to 24 tornados hit from Louisiana to Florida on Tuesday. Crews were still surveying so he couldn’t be more specific.
The storms dumped several inches of rain in Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere, causing flash flood watches. Schools were closed in parts of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas ahead of the storms.
In Mississippi, 73-year-old Dale Purvis died of blunt-force trauma in a mobile home west of Purvis, Lamar County Coroner Cody Creel said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said an apparent tornado in the Pensacola area significantly damaged more than 70 homes and 24 apartments, leaving three people with minor injuries.
He stopped at The Moorings apartment complex, where winds ripped the roof off of at least two buildings.
Residents in LaPlace, Louisiana, were cleaning up Wednesday after a tornado ripped up trees, tore roofs from houses and terrified local residents. Nearly 200 homes were damaged.
Rose Fuselier, 80, had a gaping hole where her home’s front window once stood.
“The whole backyard is covered with trees, and then my shed is torn up, too. The roof is gone, and the siding is partially gone,” she said. Still, she said others suffered damage even worse than hers: “I lucked out. I lucked out.”