WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The death toll of at least 45 people from a nasty series of tornadoes and severe storms across the southern United States over the weekend was the highest in more than three years, experts said on Monday.
The storms killed 22 people in North Carolina, seven each in Arkansas and Alabama, five in Virginia, two in Oklahoma and one each in Mississippi and Tennessee, according to state emergency officials.
Greg Carbin, meteorologist at the National Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma City, said it was too early to say for sure, but the storms appeared to be the worst in terms of deaths since February 5 and February 6 of 2008.
The tornadoes struck during the night in some states such as Arkansas, knocking over trees and killing many people while they slept.
But the death toll of 22 in North Carolina was more perplexing because the storms struck during daylight hours and there were strong warnings issued in advance.
“This is certainly a high total number of fatalities with an event occurring during the daylight hours,” Carbin said.
One reason may be that people in mobile homes are vulnerable because the homes can flip or roll over in a storm, he said.
Carbin said the preliminary total of tornadoes reported during the three days was about 270, although once reports are analyzed this number should fall to between 130 and 200.
Several of the tornadoes were in the F3 category on the Fujita scale that measures the destructiveness of a tornado, but none were F4 or F5, which is the highest level.
Overall, Carbin said the series of storms was “notable” but far from the worst ever. The all-time worst series of storms was in April 1974 when some 300 people were killed.
In Oklahoma on Monday, Governor Mary Fallin requested a federal disaster declaration for Atoka County, where two elderly sisters became the first victims of the string of tornadoes that tore through the south. A tornado injured 43 people and destroyed 149 homes in the rural county.
Some forecasters expect another round of severe weather to hit the central Plains and the Mississippi and Ohio valleys on Tuesday.
“Beginning late today and tonight, a small area from eastern Kansas to western Kentucky could have a few localized gusty storms before a more widespread severe weather threat unfolds,” meteorologist Bill Deger of Accuweather.com said.
The Midwest is expected to get a mix of snow and rain around the Great Lakes, according to the Weather Channel, and flood warnings were in effect along and near the Ohio River in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, the National Weather Service reported.
In Chicago, a dusting of snow fell overnight. Temperatures were in the high 30s on Monday, slowing the melting of the spring snow.
National Weather Service forecasters said northern New Jersey saw some minor flooding on Monday, but worse was yet to come. The Passaic River, near Little Falls, could crest at the major flood stage Monday night, the service said.
While many other parts of the country were suffering from storms and flooding, a severe drought has led to unprecedented wildfires in the Southwest.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has requested a Major Disaster Declaration for the entire state, as brush fires which have burned more than 1.5 million areas continued on Monday.
The fires have been whipped by 60-miles-per-hour wind gusts and fueled by brush dried out by record low humidity.
So far, the 7,800 separate fires have destroyed 244 homes, including ten in southwest Austin.
Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Dave Warner from Philadelphia; Editing by Greg McCune