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News Wrap: Killer storms blast the South with tornadoes

In our news wrap Thursday, tornadoes touched down across five states on Wednesday evening. In Mississippi, which saw the worst of the extreme weather, a state of emergency was declared across seven counties. Also, a record number of people are expected to travel at some point between Christmas and New Year’s.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Christmas holiday turned into Christmas horror overnight, as killer storms blasted parts of the South. Today, communities were left to count their dead and damages, including at least 11 killed and scores hurt.

    One after another, tornadoes touched down across five states Wednesday evening.

  • MAN:

    Monster tornado. Can't tell if it's on the ground because of the trees, but that sure looks like it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The worst was in Northern Mississippi, where more than a dozen twisters spun down. A state of emergency stretched across seven counties, from the Arkansas border in the west, to Tennessee in the north, and near Alabama in the east.

    Governor Phil Bryant visited the region today.

  • GOV. PHIL BRYANT, Mississippi:

    It is difficult, particularly this time of year, to see such damage and know that heartbreaks go along with that damage, that families have lost loved ones. Seven Mississippians have been lost in this storm. Funerals will be planned. This should be a joyous holiday season. And it will not be for many.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A string of Mississippi towns fell victim, starting with Clarksdale, where a twister flipped small airplanes at the local airport.

    Sixty miles to the northeast, the volunteer fire department in Three Forks was wiped out.

  • JOEY JACKSON, Three Forks Volunteer Fire Department:

    It's kind of devastated. I mean, we don't have any — we run EMS and fire both. And we don't have anything.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Eighteen-wheelers were toppled in the town of Sardis, while, in Holly®MDNM¯ Spring, a 7-year-old boy was among those killed, as a twister tossed cars and blew homes off their foundations. It left some people feeling lucky to be alive.

  • LANCE MEEKS, Tornado Survivor:

    Uproot trees, cut trees in half. And I don't know why I'm still standing here talking to you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In the aftermath, Mississippi police and first-responders went door to door, checking for survivors.

  • RAY HALL, Mississippi Highway Patrol:

    That's the number one — our number one priority that if we do have someone that is stranded or someone that is trapped, we're trying to clear each street, each county road, each highway, going door to door, to make sure that we can eliminate all the possibilities that there's still someone that needs help.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Meanwhile, in Central Tennessee, emergency crews worked overnight to clear roads. And farther north, strong winds ripped roofs from homes in Noblesville, Indiana. A twister was even reported in Canton, Michigan, just west of Detroit.

    The chance of tornadoes diminished today as the storm system pushed east. But it still brought the prospect of heavy rain and flooding, and almost freakishly warm weather for Christmas Eve.

    In New York City, residents and tourists alike donned T-shirts and shorts in record-breaking, 70-degree temperatures.

  • WOMAN:

    What else can you say? It's perfect. We're doing some sights and walking around the city. It's beautiful.

  • WOMAN:

    This is my first time in New York, and I was expecting snow and freezing cold temperatures, but I'm still enjoying it, still enjoying it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Forecasters say it's mostly due to the current El Nino effect, a warming of the Pacific Ocean that's driving warmer air east and pushing back the colder, arctic air.

    And the same effect that's helping generate warm weather and severe storms in the South and East has also brought heavy rain and snow to the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Elsewhere, this day, Christmas Eve festivities unfolded around the world. In Bethlehem, Christian pilgrims and tourists alike flocked to Manger Square, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Other celebrations were canceled, as four more Palestinians died in clashes with Israeli forces.

    Meanwhile, at the Vatican, thousands of worshipers packed into St. Peter's Basilica, where Pope Francis presided over midnight mass.

  • POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter):

    We need to cultivate a strong sense of justice to discern and to do God's will. And in a culture of indifference, which not infrequently turns ruthless, our lifestyle should be a lifestyle of devotion filled with empathy, compassion, and mercy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The holiday period also means a record travel season across the United States. AAA estimates that 100 million Americans will venture out between Christmas and New Year's. More than 90 percent will drive, taking advantage of the lowest gas prices in years.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There's been another migrant tragedy this Christmas Eve; 19 people, including six children, drowned today when their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. The Turkish coast guard delivered the bodies to shore, and the coffins were later taken to a morgue in the city of Izmir. It was the third such incident in as many days. Rescuers were able to save at least 21 passengers.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Back in this country, there's word the Obama administration plans raids and mass deportations next year of hundreds of families who arrived in the country illegally within the last two years. Most came from Central America.

    The Washington Post reports the campaign could start in January and target people who've already been ordered to leave the country. The plan still needs final approval.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Oscar-nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. won a pardon today for a drug conviction going back nearly 20 years. The office of California Governor Jerry Brown said Downey has — quote — "lived an honest and upright life" since he spent a year in prison. The actor is best known for his roles in the Iron Man and Avengers movie franchises.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Wall Street closed early for Christmas on a day of light trading. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 50 points to finish at 17552. The Nasdaq rose two points, but the S&P 500 was down three.

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