Powerful storm system threatens Southeast

(CNN) -- A powerful storm system rumbled through Mississippi on Thursday, spawning a tornado that killed one person and injured others.

At least five counties in eastern Mississippi and four in western Alabama suffered damage as the storms rolled through. Most of it involved downed trees, though homes and businesses were also damaged, according to officials in those states.

Forecasters had warned that, as the day wore on, the same system could deliver a similar blow to the rest of Alabama and parts of Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

By early Thursday evening, tornado watches -- portending a threat of large hail and damaging wind -- remained in effect through parts of Alabama, northwest Florida and northwest Georgia.

Until then, the area hit hardest Thursday was Kemper County, Mississippi, on the Alabama border.

That's where one person died after strong winds destroyed a steel building along Highway 493, the National Weather Service reported. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency later reported that five people were injured and several homes were damaged in that county.

In neighboring Noxubee County, the weather agency said, a "violent and extremely dangerous" tornado was spotted near the city of Macon.

City Clerk Beverly Shelton said electricity had been knocked out in Macon, and there were reports of damaged homes and businesses about 10 miles south in Shuqualak. A number of injuries were reported in that town of about 500 people, reported the weather service.

Across the border in Pickens County, Alabama, radar indicated a tornado set down and the county emergency management director, Ken Gibson, said a path of damage had been left behind in the northwestern part of the county, which borders Mississippi.

It wasn't just the Deep South that was watching out for bad weather, as severe storms were also expected Thursday for the eastern Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys.

Of course, such hazardous springtime weather is hardly an anomaly in many of these areas.

A cool March meant that there had been significantly fewer tornadoes this year compared with previous ones, CNN's weather unit noted.

But that doesn't mean to rest of the season will be slow.

Just ask the people of Hazelwood, Missouri, where at least 24 homes sustained severe damage from storms Wednesday night, the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management said.

One tornado touched down in the St. Louis suburb, ripping the roofs off of several homes, Hazelwood Communications Coordinator Tim Davidson said. No serious injuries were immediately reported.

Hazelwood resident Alisa Daffin spent the night in her bathroom as the storm moved through.

When she woke up Thursday, "it was pitch black and I started having a panic attack," she told CNN affiliate KMOV. "I looked outside, and it got worse."

What she saw were downed trees and power lines. Her home was without electricity or water.

"It looks like a war zone, it doesn't look like my home," she told KMOV.

Daffin walked half a mile to an elementary school where the Red Cross had set up.

After the warning sirens went off Wednesday night, Gary Buneta decided to walk to the back of his house, where he thought he would be safe, but the tornado beat him to it.

As he was walking through the house, there was a loud pop, then flying glass before he rose off the ground and was thrown on his kitchen floor. Debris from the ceiling fell, and then it was quiet, he told KMOV.

"The wind just picked me up and moved me that far across my kitchen," he said.

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Missouri after the series of storms pummeled the St. Louis area and elsewhere across the state. Nixon will tour damaged areas Thursday, his website said.

Arkansas was also hard hit, prompting Gov. Mike Beebe declaring 15 counties state disaster areas.

One tornado touched down in Van Buren County, about 75 miles north of Little Rock, damaging at least 33 homes and injuring three people.

The twister demolished the sanctuary, a fellowship area, classrooms and a pavilion at Botkinburg Foursquare Church, its pastor said.

"If the tornado would have come an hour and a half later, we would have been caught in it," said Senior Pastor Ester Bass, referring to Wednesday night services.

No members of the church were injured.

But a passing motorist who parked his truck in the church drive-through to get out of the dangerous weather had a close call when the storm struck.

"It shook the truck and just lifted the roof right off the drive-through," said Bass. "He was all right."

Bass, 63, said his congregation of about 100 was left stunned.

"It is just devastating. My wife and I are just torn," he said. "We put a lot of sweat and hard work and it was paying off. The church was growing."

As church leaders prepared to meet with their insurance adjuster, the pastor was thankful for a loyal membership.

"They will be with me," he said. "They are ready to buckle down and do what we have to. With the Lord's help, we are going to rebuild."

Damage also was reported in Arkansas' Fulton County, on the Missouri border, and in Conway, Lincoln and White counties. About 15 homes were damaged in Izard County, said Tommy Jackson of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

Storm spotters reported overturned vehicles along U.S. 65, north of Clinton.

The severe weather season started late in Arkansas because of the chilly March, Robinson said. So far this year, six tornadoes have been reported -- about half the normal number.