Jim Van Anglen and Janet McConnaughey

MOBILE, ALA.: A Christmas Day twister outbreak left damage across the Deep South while holiday travelers in the nation’s much-colder midsection battled sometimes treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions.

Conditions were volatile throughout the afternoon and into the night with tornado warnings in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The storms were blamed for three deaths, several injuries, and left homes from Louisiana to Alabama damaged.

In Mobile, Ala., a tornado or high winds damaged homes and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown around nightfall, said Nancy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Mobile County Commission. WALA-TV’s tower camera captured a large funnel cloud headed toward downtown.

“We haven’t verified what it was, but we have an area that we heard has damage to homes,” she said.

Rick Cauley, his wife, Ashley, and two children were hosting members of both of their families. When the sirens went off, the family headed down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile’s Murphy High School.

“As luck would have it, that’s where the tornado hit,” Cauley said. “The pressure dropped and the ears started popping and it got crazy for a second.”

They were all fine, though the school was damaged. Hours after the storm hit, officials reported no serious injuries in the southwestern Alabama city.

Meanwhile, blizzard conditions were hitting the nation’s midsection.

Earlier in the day, winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, and the Highway Patrol there says a 28-year-old woman was killed in a crash on a snowy U.S. Highway near Fairview.

The snowstorm that caused numerous accidents pushed out of Oklahoma late Tuesday, carrying with it blizzard warnings for parts of northeast Arkansas, where 10 inches of snow was forecast. Freezing rain clung to trees and utility lines in Arkansas and wind gusts up to 30 mph whipped them around, causing about 71,000 customers to lose electricity.

Blizzard conditions were possible for parts of Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky with predictions of 4 to 7 inches of snow.

No injuries were confirmed immediately, but fire crews were still making door-to-door checks in the hardest-hit areas of Mobile. The Mobile Fire-Rescue Department, which was providing storm updates through Twitter, said Murphy High School was damaged and that there was a gas leak at a nearby apartment building.

Tornado damage

An apparent tornado caused damage in the west Alabama town of Grove Hill, located about 80 miles north of Mobile.

Mary Cartright said she was working at the Fast Track convenience store on Christmas evening when the wind started howling and the lights flickered, knocking out the store’s computerized cash registers.

“We’ve had some pretty heavy weather,” said Cartright in a phone interview. “Our cash registers are down so our doors are closed.”

Trees fell on a few houses in central Louisiana’s Rapides Parish but there were no injuries reported and crews were cutting trees out of roadways to get to people in their homes, said sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Carnline.

Near McNeill, Miss., a likely tornado damaged a dozen homes and sent eight people to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries, said Pearl River County emergency management agency director Danny Manley.

Fog blanketed highways, including arteries in the Atlanta area, which was expected to be dealing with the same storm system today. In New Mexico, drivers across the eastern plains had to fight through snow, ice and low visibility.

At least three tornadoes were reported in Texas, though only one building was damaged, according to the National Weather Service. Tornado watches were in effect across southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

Flights canceled

More than 400 flights nationwide were canceled by the evening, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.com. More than half were canceled into and out of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which got a few inches of snow.

Christmas lights also were knocked out with more than 100,000 customers without power in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In Louisiana, quarter-sized hail was reported early Tuesday in the western part of the state and a WDSU viewer sent a photo to the TV station of what appeared to be a waterspout around the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in New Orleans. There were no reports of crashes or damage.

Some mountainous areas of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains could get up to 10 inches of snow, which would make travel “very hazardous or impossible” in the northern tier of the state from near-whiteout conditions, the National Weather Service said.

Lethal storms

The holiday might conjure visions of snow and ice, but twisters this time of year are not unheard of. Ten storm systems in the last 50 years have spawned at least one Christmastime tornado with winds of 113 mph or more in the South, said Chris Vaccaro, a National Weather Service spokesman in Washington, via email.

The most lethal were the storms of Dec. 24-26, 1982, when 29 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi killed three people and injured 32.

In Mobile, a large section of the roof on the Trinity Episcopal Church is missing and the front wall of the parish wall is gone, said Scott Rye, a senior warden at the church in the Midtown section of the city.

On Christmas Eve, the church with about 500 members, was crowded for services.

“Thank God this didn’t happen last night,” Rye said.

The church finished a $1 million-plus renovation campaign in June 2011, which required the closure of the historic sanctuary for more than a year.

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant urged residents to have a plan for any severe weather.

“It only takes a few minutes, and it will help everyone have a safe Christmas,” Bryant said.