By Jason Hanna and Melissa Alonso, CNN
Two people are dead and two others are hurt after a tornado struck in the Florida Panhandle on Thursday morning, authorities said — part of a series of storms that have laid waste to buildings around the South since Wednesday.
A tornado struck Washington County, north of Panama City, `sheriff’s spokesperson Kristy Kolmetz said.
“There’s a total destruction of homes in that area,” Kolmetz told CNN. The conditions of the two injured people weren’t immediately available.
At least one tornado was reported before sunrise in an eastern portion of Washington County, about a 45-minute drive north-northeast of Panama City, according to the National Weather Service.
Trees had fallen on roads and yards, and splintered wood and other building debris were scattered across a field, photos from the sheriff’s office showed.
From the nearby city of Chipley, Jonathan Leonberger recorded video of a large funnel cloud in the distance during Thursday morning’s storm, he said. Lightning periodically illuminated the funnel cloud in what was otherwise darkness in the video posted on Facebook.
That was one of at least 30 tornado reports made from Texas to Florida from Wednesday morning to early Thursday — from a series of storms that also injured seven people in Arkansas.
More severe storms and strong winds still are possible Thursday across a swath of the country’s eastern third.
Wind gusts of 40 mph or higher could hit states from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas to parts of Michigan, Ohio and New York, creating chances of downed tree limbs and power lines, the National Weather Service said.
Also, severe storms are possible from Florida to Vermont and New Hampshire, with varying degrees of risk. The highest risk of the day — enhanced, or level 3 of 5 — exists for northern Virginia, central Maryland and parts of central and eastern Pennsylvania, the Storm Prediction Center said.
A line of thunderstorms early Thursday evening stretched from central New York to northern Virginia. These areas are under a severe thunderstorm watch through the evening, primarily for wind gusts to 70 mph, although an isolated tornado is also possible, the Storm Prediction Center said.
A tornado watch covers portions of eastern Maryland, northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia until 8 pm EDT, according to the Storm Prediction Center.
The watch covers more than 5 million people, including residents off Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Ocean City, Maryland. A few tornadoes, marble size hail and damaging thunderstorm wind gusts of 70 mph are possible, according to the SPC.
Ongoing storms have already produced reports of funnel clouds and wind damage near Richmond.
“Frequent lightning, severe thunderstorm wind gusts, hail and a few tornadoes” are possible along the East Coast, the weather service said.
Storms, with suspected tornadoes, damaged buildings in the South
Storms left damage in several parts of the South.
Strong winds — possibly a tornado — hit Springdale, Arkansas, around 4 a.m. Wednesday, Mayor Doug Sprouse said in a Facebook post. The city’s southeast bore the brunt of the storm, according to local officials, who said there were reports of downed power lines, trees and traffic lights.
Seven people were injured in Springdale, including two critically, Sprouse said.
Buildings were flattened, roofs were damaged and yards were covered with storm debris, according to video from CNN affiliate KHBS/KHOG.
The gym at George Elementary School was destroyed, and the kitchen and cafeteria were severely damaged, the Springdale School District said.
“Many residents have been displaced from their homes and numerous businesses have reported significant damages,” Sprouse said.
Reports of tornadoes or damaging winds across the South picked up Wednesday afternoon and night.
In Alabama, one person suffered a minor injury from severe weather at the University of Montevallo, about 35 miles south of Birmingham, the school said. The area had been under a tornado warning that night. Details about how the injury happened weren’t immediately available.
“We are thankful that this week was spring break and that very few people were on campus during tonight’s storms,” the school said on Twitter, noting it was still doing a full damage assessment.
In southwestern Alabama’s Choctaw County, several homes received major to minor damage, emergency officials said. Southern Choctaw High School also sustained damage Wednesday to its baseball field and gym, and a school bus was flipped on its side, Tyler Davidson of the Choctaw County Emergency Management Agency said.
In eastern Mississippi’s Noxubee County, at least two mobile homes were damaged Wednesday, and residents were rescued from inside, Corey Brown from the county’s emergency management office said. It’s believed they suffered non-life-threatening injuries, Brown said.
High winds ahead of the storm system helped fuel a brush fire in Sevier County, Tennessee. At least one person was injured, and the flames have burned through at least 1,000 acres, county officials said. At least 35 structures have been affected.
US sets March record for number of tornadoes for second straight year
At least 219 US tornadoes have been reported in March — the most since reliable records began in 1950, according to data from the Storm Prediction Center. About 80 tornadoes are reported in March on average.
The previous March record was set just last year, when 191 tornadoes were reported across the country. The third-highest total for March was in 2017, with 187.
Most tornadoes in the US happen from April to May, though scientists have tracked a tendency toward more tornadoes occurring earlier in the year, likely as a function of climate change, as well as influences from La Niña.
“Our future projections of how severe weather may change in the future … they show an earlier start to the severe weather season, so more severe weather in February, more severe weather in March,” Victor Gensini, a professor at Northern Illinois University, told CNN.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Aya Elamroussi, Caroll Alvarado, Brandon Miller, Dave Hennen, Chris Boyette, Mike Saenz and Gregory Lemos contributed to this report.