By Jake Bleiberg and Kevin McGill
A storm system that spawned dozens of reported tornadoes from east Texas to the Florida Panhandle was all but done with the South on Thursday after killing at least three people and uprooting families across Louisiana, where some homes were blown into pieces.
Elsewhere, heavy snow and high winds meant more blizzards in the northern Midwest from the Dakotas through Michigan, and more ice and snow causing trouble in places from the Appalachians through New England.
The National Weather Service can take days to confirm whether destructive winds were in fact tornadoes, but the impact was clear in places like Caddo Parish, Louisiana, where a man went out for groceries and returned to discover his mobile home was gone, and with it, his wife and son.
“You go to search a house and the house isn’t even there, so where do you search?” Gov. John Bel Edwards said as he toured the mile-long (1.6-kilometer) path of destruction in rural Keithville, south of Shreveport.
The body of 8-year-old Nikolus Little was found in the woods. The body of his mother, Yoshiko A. Smith, 30, was discovered later, under storm debris. “He just went to go shopping for his family, came home and the house was gone,” Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Sgt. Casey Jones said.
Another Keithville man, William Walls, said a tornado picked up his home and tossed it into his brother’s house next door as he found himself stuck outside on his brother's back porch. Videos he posted on Facebook show the shredded remains.
“This is my house,” Walls said. “I watched it pick my trailer up and throw it into there.”
An outpouring of support was evident in Union Parish, near the Arkansas line, where a gymnasium was busy with volunteers and survivors going through stacks of donated clothing. Farmerville Mayor John Crow said an apartment complex where 50 families lived was badly damaged, a neighboring trailer park with about 10 homes was wiped out, and about 30 homes were damaged along nearby Lake D’Arbonne.
Patsy Andrews of Farmerville struggled to contain her tears as she described how she survived with her daughter, son and baby boy. A strange wind blew open the front door and her son barely managed to shut and lock it when her daughter got the tornado alert and yelled for them to get down, she said.
“By the time we landed on the floor, all we could hear was ‘Pow Pow!' like gunshots,” as their windows shattered, she said. ”We was crawling, it was dark, and my baby was on the couch, he was asleep. … We thought we lost him. So my son went and grabbed him off the couch, because it was still popping like glass."
“The only thing we know to do was just crying, we was screaming, just calling on Jesus. We pushed the bathroom door open and somehow y’all -- it wasn’t nobody but God – we all grabbed each other, we jumped in the tub. All we could do was just pray. It was very devastating.”
“Thankfully everybody in our community is safe. I like how we came together," Andrews said, looking around the gymnasium. "Now we have to step up for our own town. And I think that’s the best, because it shows people -- it shows that people love you, it shows that people care.”
Possible twisters also pummeled parts of New Orleans and its neighboring parishes. A woman was found dead and eight people were hospitalized with injuries in St. Charles Parish after a suspected tornado struck the community of Killona along the Mississippi River.
“She was outside the residence, so we don’t know exactly what happened,” St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said of the woman killed. “There was debris everywhere. She could have been struck. We don’t know for sure. But this was a horrific and a very violent tornado.”
Other possible twisters struck Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes — including areas badly damaged by a March tornado. St. Bernard Sheriff Jimmy Pohlman said the latest tornado damage covered a roughly 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch. Parish President Guy McInnis said the damage was less than in the March tornado though numerous roofs were blown away or damaged.
New Orleans emergency director Collin Arnold said business and residences in the city suffered significant wind damage, largely on the river's west bank. One home collapsed, injuring four people. “The last word we had is that they were stable,” Arnold said.
Five others were injured in New Iberia, Louisiana, where a possible twister smashed the windows of Iberia Medical Center, the hospital said.
And in Mississippi, a suspected tornado destroyed four large chicken houses, one containing 5,000 roosters, Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey said, and mobile homes at a park in Sharkey County were shredded.
About 10,000 customers remained without power in Louisiana, and more than 100,000 lost electricity in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages. Forecasters expect more blizzard conditions in places across the Upper Midwest, and ice and snow from the central Appalachians into the Northeast. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch through Friday afternoon. Residents from West Virginia to Vermont were told to watch for a possible significant mix of snow, ice and sleet.
McGill reported from New Orleans.
UPDATES: With survival story in Farmerville, Louisiana. Trims.