MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A severe weather system that trudged across the Southeast Wednesday tore roofs off buildings, overturned cars and caused a house fire that killed a woman.
Two apparent tornadoes damaged buildings and caused minor injuries near Mobile in southwest Alabama, hours after several tornadoes were reported to the west in Louisiana. A woman died in a house fire in Mississippi that authorities believe was caused by lightning.
Alabama and Louisiana's governors declared states of emergency, which allows them to request federal help in responding to the storms.
Far to the north, New Jersey's governor also made an emergency declaration for parts of the state to allow the National Guard and state police to prepare for expected flooding from the storm system. The National Weather service issued a flood warning in several counties where heavy rain was expected Thursday.
Alabama authorities said only minor injuries were reported despite the destruction there.
"It's very fortunate judging from the extent of some of the damage," said John Kilcullen, operations director for the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency.
Ambulances, police cars and fire trucks with flashing lights descended on the Theodore area near Mobile after the storm struck about 8:45 a.m. CST, overturning vehicles, nearly demolishing a gas station, knocking down power lines and causing ammonia and natural gas leaks.
Evelyn Thibeault said she saw a twister go by her business, Theodore Mail Ship and More.
"My front door flew open and a plant flew across the floor. Everything just turned white. BP is just gone. It's horrible," said Thibeault, breathing hard during a telephone interview. "It hit a hardware store, a little country music place they have. We're all still nervous and shook up."
Later, across Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, a possible tornado damaged several homes and businesses in Silverhill.
Torrential rains caused flooding across a wide area of the state, and damage was reported in 17 counties by midday.
At least three tornadoes touched down in southeastern Louisiana on the heels of Mardi Gras season, which ended Tuesday night. A twister that hit Bush damaged a car, truck, home and trailer and left a woman with a cut on her head, officials said.
The National Weather Service also reported tornadoes in Kenner, where no damage was reported, and around Lacombe, where a roof was torn off a house.
In the village of Tangipahoa, authorities used boats and pickup trucks to evacuate a mobile home park after heavy rains caused a creek to overflow its banks, flooding about 20 to 30 homes. About 130 people were displaced, with 19 spending the night in a shelter, said Tangipahoa Parish spokesman Jeff McKneely.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said a woman died and her husband was injured in a Yazoo County house fire that authorities believe was caused by lightning.
"They have to investigate it," Flynn said. "The lady has an autopsy scheduled, but that is the initial belief, that the house was hit by lightening."
Wind and flooding also damaged homes and buildings.
Flash flood warnings were in effect in southeast Mississippi, and roads in several counties were flooded.
"Flooding is going to persist in some areas for a few days as water filters down into the larger rivers and waterways," said Daniel Lamb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson.
A thunderstorm in eastern Tennessee tore a section of roof from Camp Creek Elementary School on Wednesday morning, The Greeneville Sun reported. No injuries were reported and there were no children at the school yet.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman and Alan Sayre in New Orleans and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.