By The Associated Press
JACKSON — The National Weather Service confirmed Saturday evening that three tornadoes ripped through central Mississippi on New Year’s Eve as a severe weather front passed, causing heavy damage and injuring three people.
The weather service in Jackson reported late Saturday that the first of three tornadoes passed through Hinds and Rankin counties late Friday afternoon, and two separate ones followed in Kemper and Noxubee counties early Saturday.
The Friday night tornado passed through Byram with winds near 120 mph. Officials say it damaged structures, blew out billboards, uprooted trees and overturned a tanker trailer. Authorities say that tornado also touched the outskirts of Jackson-Evers International Airport.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said 39 homes and 40 businesses were destroyed or seriously damaged by the large storm system.
The storms were part of a vast cold front sweeping the nation’s midsection that is blamed for at least seven deaths in tornadoes and storms elsewhere in the Midwest and South. Parts of Alabama and Louisiana were also under tornado watches on New Year’s Eve. No one was killed in the storms that passed through central Mississippi.
The first tornado went through Byram, near Jackson, around nightfall with winds that reached 120 mph. It then crossed the Pearl River into Richland and onto the grounds of the airport, passing just south of the terminal. The twister also passed through Pearl.
More than eight hours later, a less-powerful twister touched down in Kemper County with maximum winds of 70 mph. It mainly snapped and uprooted trees.
The third tornado blasted through Noxubee County around 2:30 a.m. With winds that reached 140 mph, that tornado damaged farms and homes, scattering debris one mile away in one case.
About 6 inches of rain fell in places, leading to flash flooding.
Forecasters said the worst damage appeared to be in Attala County.
“It looks like a rip-roaring start to the New Year,” said Ed Agre, a senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Jackson.
He and other forecasters at the weather service’s building at the Jackson airport were forced into a tornado shelter when winds hit 60 mph.
“It was pretty intense,” Agre said. “That was one of the rare times we’ve used that (shelter) in the last 20 years.”
The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson reported that the storm forced the evacuation of about 200 people from the Jackson-Evers airport. The airport was forced to run on generators and a hangar was damaged, officials said.
Power was knocked out to about 20,000 customers, but by Saturday night, only about 1,500 remained without power.