The national Storm Prediction Center said more than 18 million people in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma were at an enhanced risk of storms Friday, including from strong tornadoes, flooding rains and wind gusts that could exceed 80 mph (129 kph), the speed of a Category 1 hurricane. The area included several major Texas cities including Dallas, Houston and Austin.
The storms also unleashed downpours that caused widespread flash flooding. Dallas police said one person died when a car flipped into Five Mile Creek west of downtown Dallas about 7 p.m.
Earlier in the afternoon, a tornado destroyed two homes near Fair Play, Missouri, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Springfield. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said no injuries were reported.
Shortly before 3 p.m., a tornado stripped the shingles from the roof of a home near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Tulsa. No injuries were reported there either.
What the NWS described as "a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado" roared through parts of Logan County, Arkansas, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Fort Smith on Friday night.
At least three homes were destroyed by the Arkansas tornado, said Logan County Emergency Management Coordinator Tobi Miller, but no injuries were reported. Downed trees and power lines were widespread, she said.
Miller said the tornado skirted her home in Subiaco, Arkansas. She said she heard but couldn't see the rain-wrapped twister in the dark.
Ahead of the storms, Dallas' Office of Emergency Management asked residents to bring in pets, outdoor furniture, grills, “and anything else that could be caught up in high winds to reduce the risk of flying debris."
“Trampolines are very easy to loft into the air during high winds," said Matt Hemingway, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Anything outside that could be blown around could become a projectile."
“We're pretty much right in the crosshairs," Hemingway said of Shreveport. “Damaging winds are our biggest concern because of the widespread nature of that threat, with tornadoes not far behind that."
Such strong winds are a key concern in an area at greatest risk: A zone that includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, the Storm Prediction Center warned. Weather service meteorologists in northern Louisiana said that such a dire forecast for the area is only issued two to four times each year, on average.
“We could see some very strong tornadoes — possibly those that may stay on the ground for some time — not just the brief spin-up tornadoes,” Hemingway said.
Tornado watches Friday night covered parts of eastern Texas, northwestern Louisiana, southern Missouri and much of Arkansas.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said boats, helicopters, medical and rescue teams had been placed on standby in case they are needed.
“I ask that all Texans keep those in the storm's path and all of Texas' first responders in their prayers as they deal with the effects of this storm," Abbott said in a statement.
Wicked weather also will pose a threat to Alabama and Georgia as the system moves eastward on Saturday, forecasters said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Friday the state was making necessary preparations ahead of the potential weather.
“At the state level, we continue to closely monitor this storm system, while making all necessary preparations,” Ivey said in a statement. “I encourage all Alabamians to do the same, stay weather aware and heed all local warnings.”
On Alabama's Gulf Coast, Baldwin County canceled school activities including sporting events that were scheduled for Saturday. The weather service warned of flooding and the potential for 10-foot-high waves on beaches, where northern visitors escaping the cold are a common sight during the winter.
Heavy rains also could cause flooding across the South and part of the Midwest.
Many streams already are at or near flood levels because of earlier storms, and heavy rains could lead to flash flooding across the region, forecasters said. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana were under flash flood watches on Friday in anticipation of the drenching rains.