NEW ORLEANS – Nasty weather, including a chance of strong tornadoes and howling thunderstorms, could be on the way for Christmas Day along the Gulf Coast from east Texas to north Florida.
The storms will hold off long enough to let Christmas Eve bonfires light the way for Pere Noel along the Mississippi River, officials said.
Farther north, much of Oklahoma and Arkansas were under a winter storm warning, with freezing rain, sleet and snow expected on Christmas. A blizzard watch is out for western Kentucky. No matter what form it takes, travel Tuesday could be dangerous, meteorologists said.
The storms could bring strong tornadoes or winds of more than 75 mph, heavy rain, quarter-sized hail and dangerous lightning in Louisiana and Mississippi, the National Weather Service said. The greatest risk is in areas north of Interstates 10 and 12, with the worst storms likely along and southeast of a line from Winnsboro, La., to Jackson and DeKalb, Miss., according to the weather service's Jackson office.
"We understand that most people will be focusing on the holiday," said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. "Please plan now for how you will receive a severe weather warning, and know where you will go when it is issued. It only takes a few minutes, and it will help everyone have a safe Christmas."
In Alabama, the director of the Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, said he was briefing both local officials and Gov. Robert Bentley on plans for dealing with a possible outbreak.
Forecasters said storms would begin near the coast and spread north through the day, bringing with them the chances of storms, particularly in central and southwest Alabama. No day is good for severe weather, but Faulkner said Christmas adds extra challenges because people are visiting unfamiliar areas. Also, people are more tuned in to holiday festivities than their weather radio on a day when thoughts typically turn more toward the possibility of snow than twisters, he said.
"We are trying to get the word out through our media partners and through social media that people need to be prepared," Faulkner said
Meteorologists also recommended getting yards ready Monday, bringing indoors or securing Christmas decorations, lawn furniture and anything else that high winds might rip away or slam into a building or car.
"Make sure they're all stable and secure — that there's not going to be any loose wires blowing around and stuff like that," or bring them inside, said Joe Rua, with the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, where storms were expected to roar in from Texas after midnight.
On Christmas Eve, more than 100 log teepees for annual bonfires are set up along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, which is a bit more than halfway from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and about 20 in St. John the Baptist Parish, its downriver neighbor, parish officials said. Most are 20 feet tall, the legal limit.
Fire chiefs and other officials in both parishes decided to go ahead with the bonfires after an afternoon conference call with the National Weather Service.
The bad weather was expected from a storm front moving from the West Coast crashing into a cold front, said weather service meteorologist Bob Wagner of Slidell.
"There's going to be a lot of turning in the atmosphere," he said.
Ten storm systems in the last 50 years have spawned at least one Christmastime tornado with winds of 113 mph or more (F-2) in the South, Chris Vaccaro, a National Weather Service spokesman in Washington, said in an email. The most lethal were the storms of Dec. 24-26, 1982, when 29 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi killed three people and injured 32; and those of Dec. 24-25, 1964, when two people were killed and about 30 people injured by 14 tornadoes in seven states.
A National Weather Service statement from Jackson, Miss., said the main questions are how far north and west the threat will spread — and whether the storms will be more scattered, resulting in a greater tornado risk, or more in the form of a squall line, resulting in a higher risk of damaging straight-line winds along with embedded tornadoes.
In the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Timothy J. Babin said the 10 or so wire Christmas sculptures in his yard and more than 180 plastic figures in his mother's yard are ready for just about any storm. Each one is staked down when it's set out, he said.
Dozens of toy soldiers, a nativity scene, Santa and nine reindeer (don't forget Rudolph), angels, snowmen and Santa Clauses fill the yard of his mother, Joy Babin.
"From a wind standpoint, we should be fine unless we're talking 70, 80, 90 miles an hour," Timothy Babin said.
Out shopping with her family at a Target store in Montgomery, Ala., on Christmas Eve, veterinary assistant Johnina Black said she wasn't worried about the possibility of storms on the holiday.
"If the good Lord wants to take you, he's going to take you," she said.
Associated Press writer Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.