3 dead in Oklahoma tornadoes; 40M in US under severe weather threat

Three people are dead after tornadoes struck Oklahoma and about 40 million Americans are at risk of severe weather Thursday, forecasters say, marking the second consecutive day tornado and storm watches will be in effect for the central U.S.

A tornado watch was issued Thursday afternoon for portions of the upper Midwest, including the Chicago metro area. A tornado watch means weather conditions are favorable for tornadoes to form.

The Plains region has been the focal point for extreme weather throughout the week. Wednesday night, a severe storm spawned tornadoes in central Oklahoma, which also led to several injuries in addition to the deaths.

For some in the central U.S. who aren't threatened by Thursday's severe weather , the risk remains for flooding, fast-developing wildfires and even heavy snow.

In the East and South, residents will enjoy unseasonably warm temperatures. Flooding will be a concern in the East, red flag warnings will remain in the West, and precipitation should continue in the North.

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Here's what to know about the national weather forecast for Thursday:

3 dead in Oklahoma after tornado

The small town of Cole, Oklahoma – home to about 600 people – was hit hard by a tornado, McClain County Deputy Sheriff Scott Gibbon told NBC's "Today."

Officials responded to multiple homes with people trapped inside, he said. One person died on the scene, and another died of a "heart-related issue" while being transported to a hospital, he said.

A third person who was injured by the tornado has also died, authorities said, but it was not clear where the person was injured.

While Oklahomans are to some degree used to tornadoes, the devastation "never gets easier," he said. "This has been one of the most significant tornadoes that we've received in that area."

Video: See what tornadoes in Cole and other storms look like across Oklahoma

Severe storms, tornadoes possible from Wisconsin to Texas

There is a slight risk for severe weather from the southern portion of the Plains to the Mississippi Valley through Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service.

A tornado watch was issued Thursday afternoon for much of northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and portions of eastern Iowa. The watch in Illinois includes the Chicago metro area.

The possibility of severe thunderstorms, which can include hail, downpours and tornadoes, stretches from southern Wisconsin through central Texas, according to AccuWeather.

Areas where severe weather is most likely Thursday include:

  • Southern Missouri

  • Most of Illinois

  • Nearly all of Arkansas, including Little Rock

  • Eastern Oklahoma

  • Western Louisiana

  • Northeast and central Texas, including Dallas; Severe thunderstorms could approach Houston by late Thursday night.

"Severe winds, hail, isolated tornadoes and scattered incidents of flash flooding are possible across this region through Thursday evening into Friday morning," the NWS said.

A deadly, devastating year for tornadoes

With at least 66 people killed by tornadoes so far in 2023, according to the Storm Prediction Center, it's been an unusually deadly year for these violent storms.

A March 31 storm produced tornadoes that killed at least 32 people from Arkansas to Delaware, and days later a tornado left five dead in Missouri.

At least 26 died in Mississippi and Alabama when tornadoes during a late-March storm carved a path of destruction through the Deep South.

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Flash floods possible in eastern Texas, Louisiana

Along with the areas at risk of severe weather in the central U.S., flash flooding is possible beginning Thursday night in:

  • Eastern Texas

  • Louisiana

  • Arkansas

  • Northwest Mississippi

  • Western Tennessee

  • Southeast Arkansas

  • Western Kentucky

  • Southern Illinois

  • Southern Indiana

"Localized flash flooding is also a possibility from Thursday night to Friday night in urban areas and in poor drainage locations," AccuWeather said.

Red flag warnings issued in Southwest, Midwest

Red flag warnings were issued in nine states Thursday morning, including an area of the country not typically at risk for fires.

New Mexico and its surrounding areas have been on red flag warnings throughout the week, but good news may be coming soon: Thursday is the last day "critical" fire weather conditions are expected in the region, according to the NWS.

"Behind the dryline across the Southern High Plains, strong winds and dry/hot weather continue to pose a critical fire weather risk as forecast by the (Storm Prediction Center), across much of New Mexico and the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles and adjacent regions of Colorado and southwest Kansas and western Oklahoma," the NWS said.

"Red flag warnings are posted for much of this area, any fires could rapidly spread given this dry high wind environment."

A red flag warning was also issued for large parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

What's a red flag warning?

A red flag warning means warm temperatures, very low humidity levels and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger, according to the NWS.

The NWS reminds Americans to never leave a fire unattended, to extinguish all outdoor fires properly and to not throw cigarettes or matches out of a moving vehicle.

"If you are allowed to burn in your area, all burn barrels must be covered with a weighted metal cover, with holes no larger than 3/4 of an inch," the NWS advises.

Red flag warning map

Heavy snow in North Dakota, Minnesota

There's potential for heavy snowfall across northern North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as in parts of Minnesota and Washington state, beginning Thursday morning into the afternoon, as the NWS issued a winter storm watch through Friday morning.

"Rain and snow will be the initial precipitation type on Thursday before changing over to primarily snow Thursday night," the NWS said. "Snow that accumulates will be heavy and wet."

Winter storm map

East Coast heats up

The roller coaster of temperatures will continue in the East, as the region went from having warm weather to a "major cooldown" in less than a week. Temperatures have been on the rise in the Southeast and now the heat is extending north, with parts of Virginia expected to reach 90 degrees Thursday.

Here are some of the forecast highs in the East:

  • Washington, D.C.: 87

  • Charlottesville, Virginia: 91

  • New York: 68

  • Philadelphia: 78

  • Charlotte: 86

  • Atlanta: 84

US weather watches and warnings

National weather radar

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Thursday forecast: Severe weather for 40M; 3 die in Oklahoma tornadoes