US storm's toll up to six dead as system heads east

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MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The death toll has risen to six from winter storms in the nation’s midsection.

Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway died today when the vehicle crossed the center line and struck an SUV head-on.

In Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol said a 76-year-old Wisconsin woman died Tuesday. She was a passenger in a car that was hit head-on when a pickup truck crossed into oncoming traffic on Interstate 44.

The Highway Patrol had earlier reported that a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy highway near Fairview, Okla.

The storm’s winds were also blamed Tuesday for toppling a tree onto a pickup truck in Texas, killing the driver, and another tree onto a house in Louisiana, killing a man there.

The enormous storm system that dumped snow and sleet on the nation’s midsection and unleashed damaging tornadoes around the Deep South began punching its way toward the Northeast today, slowing holiday travel.

Post-Christmas travelers braced for flight delays and a raft of weather warnings for drivers, a day after rare winter twisters damaged buildings in Louisiana and Alabama.

Snow and ice covered roads in southern Illinois and southern Indiana early today. Officials urged residents to stay home if they can. State police reported numerous slide-off accidents in the Evansville, Ind., area and white-out conditions on Interstate 64 in Indiana with wind gusts around 30 mph.

The storm system headed from the Gulf Coast to New England has been blamed for three deaths and several injuries, though no one was killed outright in the tornadoes. In snowy Arkansas, the storm left more than 189,000 customers without electricity today, utility Entergy Arkansas said.

Severe thunderstorms were forecast for the Carolinas while a line of blizzard and winter storm warnings stretched from Arkansas up the Ohio River to New York and on to Maine.

Thirty-four tornadoes were reported in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during the outbreak Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

Rick Cauley’s family was hosting relatives for Christmas when 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 said. “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.

Camera footage captured the approach of the large funnel cloud.

Mobile was the biggest city hit by numerous twisters. Along with brutal, straight-line winds, the storms knocked down countless trees, blew the roofs off homes and left many Christmas celebrations in the dark. Torrential rains drenched the region and several places saw flash flooding.

More than 325 flights around the U.S. were canceled as of this morning, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.com. The cancellations were mostly spread around airports that had been or soon would be in the path of the storm.

Holiday travelers in the nation’s much colder midsection battled treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions from the same fast-moving storms. In Arkansas, highway department officials said the state was fortunate the snowstorm hit on Christmas Day when many travelers were already at their destinations.

Texas, meanwhile, dealt with high winds and slickened highways. On Tuesday, winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma.

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