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Storm-weary South targeted by more severe weather

As tornado-ravaged areas continue to recover from recent storms, a rare offshore storm warning has been issued, indicating winds could surpass 70 mph and waves could reach 11 feet.

(CN) — The upper Gulf Coast is not unfamiliar with hurricane-force winds, but they are typically associated with summer months, when warm, moist air fuels tropical weather systems from the Atlantic or Caribbean. So it was unusual when the first offshore storm warning since 1994 was issued Tuesday, with the coastal forecast calling for “extremely dangerous conditions,” including wind gusts reaching 70 mph and seas as high as 11 feet.

The warning from the the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama, comes as the storm-battered South is facing its latest round of severe weather Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. About 150 miles inland, communities including Selma and Marbury are still picking up debris from destructive tornadoes that killed nine people in Alabama and Georgia on Jan. 12.

Tornadoes are also a threat with this system, according to NWS meteorologist Don Shepherd, with areas of enhanced risk encompassing much of southeast Mississippi, southwest Alabama and the western Florida panhandle. Particularly concerning is the timing of the system, which is expected to peak between 9 p.m. Tuesday and 4 a.m. Wednesday, when fewer people are awake and tuned in to severe weather warnings. 

“It is one of the higher-potential systems we’ve seen this season — the instability is a little bit of a question — but if everything materializes and comes together, it could be a pretty active event,” Shepherd said by phone Tuesday morning. “So the main thing is to make sure people are aware of the potential and have multiple ways of receiving warnings and taking action, especially with it coming in the overnight hours.”

The Deep South has been wracked with several rounds of severe weather since late December’s arctic blast, which froze more than half the country. At least 11 tornadoes touched down in central Alabama Jan. 3-4, before the region came under fire again just nine days later. 

In addition to destroying parts of historic downtown Selma, the deadly Jan. 12 outbreak included a long-track tornado that traveled more than 76 miles and reached a peak intensity of 150 mph.

Shepherd said for the most part, the weather in the eastern half of the nation has been powered by the same jet stream, or “atmospheric rivers,” that have soaked the West Coast with rain over the past several weeks, while also blanketing the Mountain West with several feet of snow. 

“It is a very active season and really looks like it will remain active, so we're probably going to be looking at more severe weather as we go through the spring,” Shepherd said. “It's really a very typical type pattern, but there's a lot of moisture and perhaps a little more instability than usual and the Gulf is a little warmer for this time of the year than you typically see so that's why it's been a little more active.” 

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey issued a state of emergency after the storms Jan. 12, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist state and local governments with the ongoing recovery effort. Organizers in Selma have since announced the 57th annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee will resume as scheduled. 

Autauga County EMA Director Ernie Baggett, whose county recorded seven of the nine deaths Jan. 12, said the area was continuing to clean up while they were also monitoring the latest weather system, although its most intense effects are expected to be experienced southward along the Interstate 65 corridor. 

“Our bigger concern at this point is this is coming in overnight and we still have trees and tree limbs that were broken but haven’t fallen down,” Baggett said Tuesday morning. “So we’re asking people not to drive and to be real cautious around trees. There will also likely be power outages if trees come down.”

Baggett added that he has also seen an uptick in severe weather.

“It's been a busy past few years, to be very honest with you,” he said. “I've been doing this on the civilian side for 12 years and we’ve had a few [tornadoes], but our neighboring Elmore County has had 12 tornadoes in the last four years.” 

According to the NWS, the same storm system has spawned high wind warnings from eastern Texas through parts of Arkansas, nearly all of Tennessee and the western half of Georgia. Behind it, winter storm warnings and advisories are in effect in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The system is expected to sweep up the eastern seaboard Wednesday, producing rain and snow from Florida to New York.

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