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Trees down, outages as storms rake US midsection

A lone jogger makes his way along Lake Michigan in unseasonably warm temperatures at Chicago’s North Ave. Beach Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Chicago. Unseasonably warm temperatures broke records in the Chicago area with thunderstorm expected to usher in freezing temperatures and snow Wednesday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) A vast storm system packing thunderstorms, damaging winds and some possible tornadoes raked a wide area of the central U.S. and South overnight, leaving one person injured from a lightning strike in Arkansas amid downed trees and scattered power outages.

Forecasters said they were checking reports of possible twisters kicked up by the strong storm system, including one report from a Little Rock suburb as well as two other locations in northwestern Arkansas. There were no reports of injuries from those storms.

Police in the Arkansas community of Monticello reported one person was injured by lightning there, but the injury was not life-threatening.

Thousands were left without power in Arkansas amid damage to the rooftops of homes. Entergy Arkansas Inc. reported at least 9,000 power outages in several communities around Arkansas, including in and around Little Rock.

The National Weather Service also reported that suspected straight-line winds of up to 80 mph were reported in the state late Tuesday night as the system crossed the state. Flooding was reported in low-lying areas of Jonesboro in Arkansas’ northeastern corner.

Tennessee and Mississippi braced for similarly severe weather conditions from the enormous front stretching on a slanted line from the central U.S. into the South.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency urged residents to brace for severe weather conditions that were expected to remain in the state until sometime Wednesday as the storm crossed as part of an approaching cold front.

“This storm will move through the state while most folks are asleep, which increases the potential for injuries,” said the Mississippi agency’s director, Robert Latham. “It is very important that everyone pays close attention to weather alerts during the next 24 to 48 hours.:

Earlier this week, a large swath of the Midwest and South bathed in unseasonably balmy temperatures that reached the high 70s in some areas.

The temperature in the central Missouri college town of Columbia reached 77 degrees on Monday, a record for January, and students exchanged their winter coats for shorts and flip-flops as freezing rain gave way to spring-like conditions. Foul weather made a quick return, however, with a Tuesday downpour that flooded some streets near the University of Missouri campus. Early morning snow was expected Wednesday.

Chicago residents also have been whiplashed by recent weather extremes. Workers who suffered through subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills a week ago strolled through downtown without coats Tuesday as temperatures soared into the mid-60s. Women wore skirts over bare legs, and joggers were in shorts and T-Shirts.

“When I woke up this morning I was shocked by it, but it’s Chicago,” said Anne Sunseri, 30, who went out for a break from her job at a legal recruiting firm in just a light leather jacket. “You never can really expect what the weather’s going to be. It just fluctuates so much recently, and I don’t feel like it used to be that way.”

Carol Krueger, who lives in the Chicago suburb of North Hoffman Estates, noted that just a few days ago she was struggling to drive through blowing snow. All she needed Tuesday was a light jean jacket, although by Thursday temperatures were barely expected to reach 20 degrees.

“It’s bizarre, it’s scary,” Krueger said of the swiftly changing weather.

The rapidly changing conditions created a risk of tornadoes, and the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the threat was greatest in northeast Texas, northern Louisiana, northwest Mississippi, southeast Missouri and much of Arkansas. The system was expected to hit much of the eastern United States on Wednesday.

On Monday, the National Weather Service predicted a “moderate” risk of severe weather more than 24 hours out, only the fifth time it had done so in January in the past 15 years, said Gregory Carbin, the director of the Storm Prediction Center.

A system pulling warm weather from the Gulf of Mexico was colliding with a cold front moving in from the west, creating volatility.

The nation has had its longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed tornado records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24, when a person was killed in a home in Highlands County, Fla. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.

The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in a mobile home in Scott County, Mo.

Associated Press

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