RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A series of rare December tornados flattening homes in the South added to the winter woes of millions of Americans from Texas to Maine. Faced with heavy snow, rains and high winds throughout, hundreds of flights have been canceled, leaving many holiday travelers stranded. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this report.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Brad Williams has been staying in Little Rock, Arkansas with relatives for the holidays. He was supposed to make his way to North Carolina yesterday to visit friends, but after looking at the road outside his uncle's house, he realized his small Ford Fiesta wasn't going anywhere.
BRAD WILLIAMS: Nine inches of snow with a nice layer of ice underneath.
SANCHEZ: And that wasn't the only problem. Williams says downed power lines and fallen trees were blocking roads everywhere.
WILLIAMS: We have enough food, but this is a community that's not really well-prepared for it.
SANCHEZ: Arkansas was only one of several Southern states hit hard by snow, freezing rain and high winds. Twisters were reported in Texas and Louisiana. North Carolina and South Carolina spent much of Wednesday under a tornado watch. The wind damage in Mississippi was so extensive, the governor declared a state of emergency.
In Mobile, Alabama there were reports of 80 to 100-mile-per-hour winds, flattening houses, knocking down trees and leaving thousands without power, according to Alabama's Emergency Management Agency. Ellen Cya, who was traveling through Mobile, told the Weather Channel she was lucky to be alive after a powerful gust of wind tossed her car up against a tree.
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ELLEN CYA: I think if it hadn't been for the tree holding the car down, I would've ended up no telling where. It was just terrifying.
SANCHEZ: Farther north, snow left Amy Jones stranded in a hotel room in Pittsburgh with her three boys.
AMY JONES: Ages 12, 10 and 3. And we were on our way to San Francisco to spend the holidays with family there.
SANCHEZ: But their flight was cancelled. Jones and her kids are supposed to fly out this afternoon. According to the National Weather Service, Pennsylvania is one of several states stretching all the way from north Texas to Maine expected to see several inches of snow - 12-18 inches in some parts. Jones says staying stuck would be a big problem. The hotel kitchen is down.
JONES: So there's no food in the hotel right now, but I went outside, and it was sort of this icy snow that was coming down. And it's just almost blizzard-like conditions just putting it down.
SANCHEZ: Those blizzard-like conditions blanketed Illinois, Ohio and Indiana, too, making interstate highways impassible and travelers waiting at airports anxious. Nancy Wilson and her husband were stuck in Cleveland.
NANCY WILSON: We came back to spend Christmas with my sister her husband and family, and we've been here since 6 o'clock this morning.
TOM WILSON: We're going to go back home sometime. We don't know when.
SANCHEZ: They're staying at least another day, and hope to be on a flight back home to Florida soon. Others didn't mind waiting. Annette Karr had been visiting her brother and sick mother in Cleveland. Karr was on her way back home to Kansas when her flight was canceled. So she had several hours to wait before the next flight.
ANNETTE KARR: And during that time, I received word from my brother that my mother died. So this is giving me a little quiet time by myself and - just to kind of focus on her.
SANCHEZ: In a way, says Karr, she's relieved that her flight was canceled. Otherwise, she would've had to fly right back for her mother's funeral.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.