Storms Bring Floods and Damaging Wind Across the South; 1 Dead In Mississippi

SLIDELL, La. (AP) -- Severe storms blamed for a death in Mississippi spawned a tornado that demolished buildings in one Louisiana city Wednesday while inundating streets in low-lying New Orleans with hours of steady rain that snarled traffic and strained the city's antiquated drainage system.

Severe weather stretched across much of the Gulf South with reports of damage from Texas to the Florida panhandle.

More than 30,000 homes and businesses were without power Wednesday night in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish, where a tornado struck the city of Slidell, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of New Orleans. It ripped roofs off buildings and partially collapsed others in and around the city of about 28,000 people. Authorities said first responders had to rescue people trapped in one heavily damaged apartment building.

At a Wednesday night news conference, Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer estimated about 75 homes and businesses were damaged in the city. Parish President Mike Cooper said assessments were still underway, but he estimated that hundreds more homes were damaged outside the city.

Police video showed tree limbs littering the streets and flooded yards that resembled Louisiana swamps. Outside a McDonald's restaurant, a car was on its side, power poles leaned toward the ground and large pieces of the restaurant's trademark golden arches were strewn about.

"I've never talked to God so much before in my life," Robin Marquez said after huddling with coworkers in a two-story building where the roof was ripped away and walls caved in.

There were no reports of deaths or critical injuries in Slidell. The National Weather Service said in a social media post Wednesday night that initial surveys of the damage indicate the area was hit by a category EF-1 tornado, with winds anywhere from 86 mph (138 kph) to 110 miles per hour (177 kph). More surveys and analyses were planned to confirm the twister's strength and path.

Close to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain fell in parts of New Orleans. It came as the system of pipes and pumps that drains the city dealt with problems with its power generating system, forcing workers to divert power from one area to another as needed.

"During intense rain, the mission sometimes shifts from keeping the streets dry to draining them as quickly as possible," the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which operates the system, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Hours after the rain ended, floodwaters lingered in some neighborhoods in New Orleans and in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

In Mississippi, the death of Shirley Wilson, 64, was attributed to the storm. Wilson had several medical conditions that required her to have access to an electric oxygen machine at all times, Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee said. When her home in the central Mississippi county lost power, her oxygen machine shut down. Emergency responders couldn't reach her until about 20 minutes after her grandchild called 911 early Wednesday, and she was pronounced dead.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said 72 homes were damaged.

In Texas, several people were rescued from homes and vehicles early Wednesday morning when flooding inundated parts of Jasper County, near the Louisiana line, authorities said.

All major roads into Kirbyville, a Jasper County town of about 2,000 people, were shut down early Wednesday due to the flooding, the sheriff's office said. Shelters were being set up after about 50 people were displaced from their homes, Billy Ted Smith, the Jasper County emergency management coordinator, said. He estimated the displaced people came from about 20 flooded homes and said there had been around half a dozen people rescued from vehicles. He said no major injuries were reported.

In the Houston suburb of Katy, strong thunderstorms that passed through the area around 2 a.m. Wednesday collapsed part of the roof of a Firestone repair shop. Storms also damaged businesses and cars in a nearby strip mall, sending a large air conditioning unit that had been on the roof crashing to the parking lot, officials said.

No one was inside the repair shop, but employees were working at a nearby sports bar when the thunderstorms rolled through, Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen told reporters later Wednesday morning.

"We were blessed that no lives were lost," Christensen said, adding that only minor injuries were reported.

Some of the damage in Katy had preliminarily been determined to have been caused by an EF-1 tornado with estimated maximum winds of around 90 mph (145 kph), National Weather Service meteorologist Bradley Brokamp said.

Photos posted on social media showed heavy damage to a church in Port Arthur, Texas, where city officials said they were also dealing with downed trees and powerlines.

In Mississippi, the sheriff sent out an urgent warning Wednesday to people in parts of Yazoo County, just northwest of Jackson, about a levee failure there. The sheriff's office called for the evacuation of one subdivision. County officials continued to monitor the levee, WAPT-TV reported.