CENTURY, Fla. — Suspected tornados touched down in Florida's Panhandle and Mississippi on Monday, destroying more than a dozen homes, damaging a school while it was in session and trapping an elderly woman and possibly other residents in rubble.
The tornadoes were part of a large winter storm system that was clobbering the eastern U.S. with snow, sleet, strong winds and rain, and which came on the heels of record-breaking low temperatures.
Officials in Florida and Mississippi were investigating reports of at least three possible tornadoes. One of the apparent twisters swept through the rural town of Century, in the northwest corner of Florida's Panhandle, late Monday afternoon, destroying or significantly damaging about 10 homes, said Escambia County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka.
Donald Pugh was at home in Century when the funnel tore through his neighborhood of small wood-frame houses and mobile homes. Walking through a maze of uprooted trees, downed power lines and shattered glass in front of his home late Monday, Pugh told The Associated Press that just minutes after the storm he and other neighbors used a chain saw to free a 94-year-old woman from the debris of her nearby home.
"It took us quite awhile," he said. "She was trapped under a metal door that was twisted."
The woman, who was taken to an area hospital, talked to the men as they worked to free her.
"She was telling us where she was and that she was OK," Pugh said.
The woman appeared to have minor injuries, but was taken to a nearby hospital as a precautionary measure because of her age, Tsubooka said. She said fire crews were investigating "multiple calls" of people possibly trapped in the rubble, but she couldn't immediately say how many there were. She said several of the reports proved to be unfounded.
Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown said authorities didn't believe there were any people still trapped as of late Monday night, but he said crews were continuing search and rescue efforts just in case.
Streets throughout the area were blocked by uprooted trees and downed power lines. In the city's historic downtown, 100-year-old homes were jolted off their foundations, trees had fallen through some homes and mangled strips of siding and other debris were wrapped around falling power lines.
Resident Willian Coker surveyed the damage.
"I saw it coming across toward us, I felt my house shake. It went on for a good 30 seconds," he said.
Despite the damage, Cocker said the neighborhood was blessed because no one was killed.
Authorities opened up one shelter and said they would close some schools in the area on Tuesday.
Century is located on the Florida-Alabama border about 45 miles north of Pensacola, Florida. A dashcam video from the patrol car being driven by Deputy Escambia County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Dewes showed clouds forming into a funnel and dipping toward the ground as debris, including an uprooted pine tree, flew past.
"I've never seen one form that big and that fast," Dewes said.
Pensacola news station WEAR-TV showed a large, black funnel cloud touching down on a highway near the town, and images submitted by viewers to the news station's Facebook page showed downed trees. Gulf Power reported on its website that about 800 people in Century were without electricity.
Century City Council president Ben Boutwell took shelter with his family in the center of his home as the storm passed, saying he heard "that typical roar" of the tornado, "like a train." Boutwell said homes about four blocks away from him had major damage.
In Mississippi, windows were blown out of cars and two gymnasiums and a library were damaged at a K-12 school in Wesson where children were in attendance when heavy thunderstorms and a possible tornado walloped at least 19 counties. There were no reports of any students injured, said Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle.
Emergency management officials reported a minimum of 15 buildings and homes damaged or destroyed, including a mobile home that was destroyed in Lincoln County. A gas station and some homes were damaged in Sylvarena in Smith County, and more than 18,000 customers were without power.
In the eastern U.S. on Monday, a day after record low temperatures plunged several states into a deep freeze, snow, freezing rain and sleet were pummeling the region.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Sullivan said there could be significant snowfall 4 to 8 inches in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York. Some mountainous areas could get even more snow.
With federal offices and many businesses closed for Washington's Birthday, though, many people were able to hunker down at home.
In Virginia, the state police asked motorists to delay any unnecessary travel until weather conditions could improve. By late afternoon, authorities were on the scene of 37 traffic crashes statewide, including a fatal crash in Fauquier County. Troopers also were responding to nine disabled vehicles across Virginia. They already had responded to 538 traffic crashes and 347 disabled vehicles for the day.
In North Carolina, light freezing rain, sleet and snow caused wrecks and closed schools and businesses. The National Weather Service said the precipitation was light Monday morning, but with temperatures in the 20s, it was freezing immediately on bridges, roads and other surfaces.
By Tuesday, when temperatures get higher, the rain and some runoff could cause flooding in some areas, Sullivan said.
Sunday's teeth-chattering temperatures were some of the coldest on record.
In several Northeastern cities including New York, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut temperatures on Sunday dipped below zero, falling to minus 40 on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Miami; Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi; and Deepti Hajela in New York contributed to this report.