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System that spawned deadly tornadoes in Texas and Louisiana threatens more severe weather as it moves east

<i>Reuters</i><br/>A car lies overturned among debris in Arabi
A car lies overturned among debris in Arabi

By Kelly McCleary, CNN

The storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes across Texas and Louisiana this week will continue to push east Wednesday, leaving a large swath of the country under the threat of more severe weather.

About 50 million people from Florida to Michigan and east to the Virginia coast are at risk of severe weather, including the possibility of large hail, gusty winds and tornadoes. Cities in the threat area include Columbus, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Savannah, Georgia; and Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro in North Carolina.

A tornado watch was issued Wednesday afternoon for about 5 million people in parts of eastern Kentucky, eastern Ohio, far western Pennsylvania and western West Virginia, per the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center (SPC). The watch, which includes Pittsburgh, is set to last until 10 p.m. ET. Tornadoes, hail the size of ping-pong balls, and wind gusts of up to 70 mph are possible, the SPC said.

The system already cut a path of destruction in Texas, where 31 tornadoes were reported Monday, including two that damaged about 1,000 homes in Williamson County, near Austin, officials said. A 73-year-old woman was killed in Grayson County, north of Dallas, when her home was destroyed in the storm, local officials said.

On Tuesday, a deadly tornado tore through the New Orleans area, killing one person, officials said. Widespread destruction was reported in the area.

The greatest risk for tornadoes was in the Florida Panhandle, southeastern Georgia and the Carolinas, Shackelford said. There’s also an increased chance for damaging winds and hail across eastern Indiana and central Ohio.

The system racked up more than 175 storm reports in a 48-hour period, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. It brought widespread rainfall totals of 2 to 4 inches across parts of the South, with some areas of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama seeing 4 to 8 inches.

Deadly tornado rips through New Orleans area

As forecasters track the system’s eastward movement, crews in the New Orleans area are assessing the damage left behind.

The Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans east were hit by a tornado just before 8 p.m. Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said, and rescue crews were digging through the destruction overnight.

One person was killed in the Arabi neighborhood of St. Bernard, Parish President Guy McInnis told CNN.

Connor Lambert, 25, was killed by a tornado Tuesday night, a St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said.

“Anybody that met him, loved him,” Connor’s grandfather Bob Lambert told CNN affiliate WDSU. “He was that kind of guy. There are no words to express what we are feeling.”

On Wednesday morning, McInnis said seven other people were taken to the hospital and released with minor injuries.

“Once the daylight hits this damage, you’re going to see that that was a miracle,” he said.

Residents knew when the storm was coming and “hunkered down” thanks to “spot on” local weather warnings, he said.

The tornado left widespread damage for 2 miles, McInnis said. Houses had been ripped from their foundations and left in the middle of the street.

“We have stretches of streets where there are no homes where there were homes,” McInnis said.

Officials worked overnight to search every home that was believed to be impacted, McInnis said. That work will continue Wednesday.

“We’re going to manage all that this morning, see what the needs of our citizens are, and get to work and recover,” he said. “We are a resilient people. We’ve been through this, it seems like, a gazillion times. But we are good at it and we’re going to get started this morning. “

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards toured the damage and declared a state of emergency in response to tornado damage in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

“Unfortunately, our people have become all too familiar with rebuilding after tragedy and loss, but it is never easy,” the governor said.

Dozens of tornadoes touched down in Texas

The storm system menaced Texas on Monday with tornadoes reported across the state, which was already dealing with dozens of active wildfires.

Two tornadoes in Williamson County, near Austin, cut a path of damage 20 miles long, according to the county’s top executive. “We believe there is somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand homes that have been damaged or completely destroyed,” County Judge Bill Gravell said at a news conference.

“I think we’re going to be absolutely amazed by the sheer number of homes that have been wrecked,” state Rep. Terry Wilson said.

In Jack County — northwest of the Fort Worth area — 60 to 80 homes were destroyed, local officials said. The National Weather Service determined a tornado there was an EF-3, with winds between 140 and 150 mph.

“Many of our homes have been totally demolished and families have been removed from their places of residence,” Jack County Judge Keith Umphress said.

It was a miracle more people weren’t injured — especially at Jacksboro Elementary School, which was sheltering a large number of students as a storm badly damaged the gymnasium, Jacksboro Fire Chief Jeremy Jennings said.

The children were about to be released for the day when officials decided to have everyone go back inside, Jacksboro Police Chief Scott Haynes said.

The gym at Jacksboro High School was also badly damaged and the facilities will be unusable “for some time,” Jennings said.

“We’re just very blessed to have facilities that were designed to sustain a storm, the storm damage that we received,” Jacksboro Independent School District Superintendent Brad Burnett told CNN affiliate WFAA.

One woman died and 53 homes were destroyed or damaged in Grayson County as a result of the storms, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference Wednesday, adding eight people remain hospitalized.

“Some are suffering from serious injuries,” the governor said. “We pray for their ongoing recovery.”

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CNN’s Steve Almasy, Chris Boyette, Holly Yan, Taylor Ward and Raja Razek contributed to this report.

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