ATLANTA — A heat wave that could deliver the warmest Christmas ever recorded to cities across the South may also fuel tornadoes and storms featuring golf ball-sized hail and damaging winds of up to 70 mph, forecasters say.
By late Wednesday, the threat of severe weather will extend from north Louisiana through Mississippi and Alabama and into Georgia, according to the National Weather Service.
Southeastern Louisiana is a step down on the risk scale, facing a slight risk of severe storms. A few isolated, but severe, thunderstorms are forecast for Wednesday morning and afternoon.
“The main threats are going to be damaging winds and tornadoes,” said Danielle Manning, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell.
By Thursday, one or two strong thunderstorms are possible in southeast Louisiana and then back to normal weather by Christmas Day on Friday, Manning said.
In areas facing a more heightened risk, severe weather could also occur during the overnight hours heading into Thursday — a particularly dangerous time since many people would be asleep when severe weather strikes, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
“These types of severe weather events are unusual for this time of year but certainly not unprecedented,” Carbin said.
On Christmas Day in 2012, a storm system spawned several tornadoes across the South and damaged homes from Texas to Alabama. Among the hardest-hit communities was Mobile, Alabama, where storms damaged a high school and church, and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown around nightfall.
“Part of the problem is that some of this will occur overnight, so it’s not just a daytime event,” Carbin said of this week’s threat. “This is not a one-shot, late afternoon Wednesday, boom, you’re done. The threat right now will be kind of this extended period of time.
“It’s still unfolding, and there’s still uncertainty as to when the greatest threat will exist,” Carbin added.
The area of enhanced risk — the bull’s-eye for the storms — covers the western half of Tennessee; northern Mississippi; much of northern Alabama; eastern Arkansas; parts of northern Louisiana; western Kentucky; southeast Missouri, and the southern tip of Illinois, according to the Storm Prediction Center’s outlook for Wednesday.
Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Huntsville, Alabama, are among the largest cities in the enhanced risk zone, an area that includes a total population of more than 9 million people.
A slight risk of severe storms will extend not only into south Louisiana, but also Georgia, the rest of Alabama and Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, data from the Storm Prediction Center shows.
After the storm threat subsides, forecasters say the high temperature in Atlanta on Christmas Eve is expected to be 74. That would break the record high for Dec. 24, which is 72 degrees set in 1984, according to weather service records.
In central Georgia, the weather service projects a high temperature of about 79 degrees in Macon on Christmas Eve, which would break the record for the date of 77 degrees set in 1964.
Further south, Savannah, Georgia, could reach a balmy 80 degrees on Christmas, tying the coastal city’s all-time warmest temperature for Dec. 25, the weather service said. Savannah previously hit the 80-degree mark in 2008 and 1984, according to the weather service’s office in Charleston, South Carolina.
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, and Advocate writer Charles Lussier contributed to this report.