Authorities in East Texas said Sunday morning that at least four people have been killed as a series of tornadoes pummeled parts of three counties east of Dallas.
They caution that the death toll, originally put at five, could rise again as search teams go through the extensive wreckage.
The storms swept through several small towns in East Texas, leaving a trail of overturned vehicles, mangled trees and damaged homes.
Search teams were going door to door Sunday, a day after storms cut a path of destruction 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in Van Zandt County, Canton Mayor Lou Ann Everett said. The largely rural area is about 50 miles east of Dallas.
“It is heartbreaking and upsetting to say the least,” Everett told reporters at a news conference Sunday morning.
Canton is known throughout Texas and neighboring states for its First Monday Trading Days, a monthly flea market that draws thousands of people and goes back 150 years. Everett said the grounds of the market were spared from serious damage, although power lines and trees were down.
Video from local television stations showed uprooted trees and overturned cars along rural, wet roadways, along with flattened homes. The storms flipped pickup trucks at a Dodge dealership in Canton and tore through the business.
Everett said authorities had confirmed four deaths in the area, down from the five deaths reported earlier, but cautioned that “it is a very fluid situation and that could change.” Searchers were using dogs to determine whether “anyone is trapped and needs help, or worse,” she said.
Fifty-six people were treated at three hospitals and six remained hospitalized Sunday morning, two of them in critical condition, ETMC Regional Health Care Systems spokeswoman Rebecca Berkley said.
Officials urged people to stay away from the area. Rescue workers were dealing with gas leaks and downed power lines and trees, said Judge Don Kirkpatrick, the county’s chief executive. Fences also had been blown over, meaning livestock in the farming and ranching area were roaming free.
“It’s a very dangerous situation out there,” Kirkpatrick said.
The National Weather Service found evidence of four tornadoes with one twister possibly on the ground for 50 miles.
The first reports of tornadoes came about 4:45 p.m. Saturday, but emergency crews were hampered by continuing severe weather, Kirkpatrick said.
“We’d be out there working and get a report of another tornado on the ground,” he said.
One resident, Ernestine Cook, told Dallas television station WFAA she rushed to a storm center just in time.
“It hit so hard, so fast. It just kept moving,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it after 22 years of living here.”
Oncor, the electric utility that serves the area, reported more than 4,500 customers were without power late Sunday morning. Everett said about 30 crews from around Texas were arriving to restore electricity. Five major transmission towers were toppled and some were difficult to reach. Cellphone service was described as “spotty.”
The storms in East Texas were among several in parts of the South and Midwest that brought strong winds, thunderstorms and torrential rain, killing a total of at least six people in three states. In Arkansas, a 65-year-old woman was killed when a tree was blown into her home Saturday. In Missouri, a 72-year-old woman drowned despite her husband’s efforts to save her as their vehicle was swept away by rushing waters after heavy rains caused flooding. The storms were headed east into Mississippi and Alabama on Sunday.