Record high temperatures across a swath of the central U.S. were being followed by thunderstorms and strong winds from Texas to Alabama and as far north as Michigan.
The temperature in the central Missouri college town of Columbia reached 77 degrees on Monday, a record for January, and students exchanged their winter coats for shorts and flip-flops as freezing rain gave way to spring-like conditions. Foul weather made a quick return, however, with a Tuesday downpour that flooded some streets near the University of Missouri campus. Early morning snow was expected Wednesday.
Chicago residents also have been whiplashed by recent weather extremes. Workers who suffered through subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills a week ago strolled through downtown without coats Tuesday as temperatures soared into the mid-60s. Women wore skirts over bare legs, and joggers were in shorts and T-Shirts.
"When I woke up this morning I was shocked by it, but it's Chicago," said Anne Sunseri, 30, who went out for a break from her job at a legal recruiting firm in just a light leather jacket. "You never can really expect what the weather's going to be. It just fluctuates so much recently, and I don't feel like it used to be that way."
Carol Krueger, who lives in the Chicago suburb of North Hoffman Estates, noted that just a few days ago she was struggling to drive through blowing snow. All she needed Tuesday was a light jean jacket, although by Thursday temperatures were barely expected to reach 20 degrees.
"It's bizarre, it's scary," Krueger said of the swiftly changing weather. "I don't know if God has anything to do with this or what."
The rapidly changing conditions created a risk of tornadoes, and the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the threat was greatest in northeast Texas, northern Louisiana, northwest Mississippi, southeast Missouri and much of Arkansas. The system was expected to hit much of the eastern United States on Wednesday.
On Monday, the National Weather Service predicted a "moderate" risk of severe weather more than 24 hours out, only the fifth time it had done so in January in the past 15 years, said Gregory Carbin, the director of the Storm Prediction Center.
A system pulling warm weather from the Gulf of Mexico was colliding with a cold front moving in from the west, creating volatility.
"We expect many reports of damaging winds before the night is out, as well as tornadoes," said Bill Bunting, operations chief for the Storm Prediction Center.
The nation has had its longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed tornado records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24, when a person was killed in a home in Highlands County, Fla. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.
The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in a mobile home in Scott County, Mo.
Associated Press writers Tammy Webber in Chicago and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier
Chance of severe storms for parts of Mississippi
JACKSON — The National Weather Service said a cold front is likely to generate severe storms as its moves east through Mississippi on Tuesday night.
Forecasters say winds in thunderstorms could reach 80 miles an hour and there is a chance of tornadoes.
Meteorologist David Cox said the storms are expected in western Mississippi between 8 p.m. Tuesday and 3 a.m. Wednesday along the Interstate 55 corridor. Cox says the system should move across state during the early morning hours Wednesday into eastern Mississippi.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., says high winds and tornadoes also are possible in Arkansas and Louisiana as the storm system passes.
Warm, moist air has been carried into the lower Mississippi Valley by southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico. That air mass is expected to meet a cold front coming from the northwest, which will trigger the storms.
"Overnight there could be some tornadoes, possibly some strong tornadoes," Cox said.
Cox said the most severe storms would be confined to a squall line but some storm cells could develop ahead of the system.
"This is the kind of event that people won't be able to see because it is night and that makes it a more dangerous situation. We are urging people to keep weather radios handy and take precautions ahead of the storm," Cox said.
Click here for more at the DJournal.com Weather page.