A tornado struck the Hattiesburg, Miss., area causing major damage and injuring at least three people, emergency officials said Sunday.
The storm was part of a system moving across the central Gulf Coast states, ahead of a strong cold front that was moving through the region. National Weather Service forecasters said the same system is causing snow and blizzard conditions in the north-central U.S.
Jeff Rent, director of external affairs with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said there were no immediate reports of deaths and only a few injuries despite widespread visible damage, though officials were concerned that could change as rescue operations were underway.
He said witnesses and videos made at the scene confirmed a tornado touched down and moved through at least two counties.
"We're still in response mode,'' Rent said. "Search and rescue operations are going on, going door-to-door in damaged areas.
"It happened close to dusk, so it's dark now. They're trying to make sure people are accounted for, they're safe and everybody who needs assistance has it.''
The University of Southern Mississippi campus was damaged in the storm. Senior Paul Gates was at his home in Hattiesburg when he looked out his window and saw the tornado.
"It was a little terrifying for a second," he said. "It sounded like the proverbial freight train."
Hattiesburg Public Schools will be closed Monday. School officials said the structure that houses buses was damaged in the storm.
Lamar County Schools superintendent Ben Burnett said Oak Grove High School's football and baseball facilities, and the school's building, were damaged.
"I can tell you that the football field house looks to be mostly gone," he said.
Burnett said several students and staff members were on campus when the tornado passed through, including the Oak Grove girls basketball team and the yearbook staff. He added, though, that no one suffered any injuries.
"Everybody's safe that we know of," he said. "So it could be worse."
School officials will begin assessing the damage Monday morning.
Forrest County Fire Coordinator Chip said the University of Southern Mississippi campus was among the areas hit by the storm.
The Hattiesburg American reported that power lines and debris were a hazard along Old Highway 11 in West Hattiesburg.
Lamar County emergency management director James Smith said he has received reports of several injuries as a result of a tornado that touched down in the area, but he couldn't say how many or how severe the injuries were.
"We have transported several with injury (to local medical facilities)," he said.
According to the Gulfport, Miss., Sun Herald, several businesses and buildings in Hattiesburg were damaged. On the University of Southern Mississippi Campus, the Ogletree Alumni House was severely damaged.
The university declared a state of emergency on campus. No injuries were reported, but students were asked to avoid areas of campus that had storm damage. Power was out on some parts of campus.
Brett Carr with the state management agency told CNN the injured people were in Marion County. It was not clear how seriously they were hurt.
"Within seconds, everything changed," Sara Lawrence, a resident of Hattiesburg, told CNN.
"I didn't feel like there was much notice. I heard the sirens and everything looked OK outside, so I started making preparations to go into the bathroom. And then, next thing I know, all the lights went out, and it got dark outside," she said.
Just outside Columbia, Miss., Marion County emergency director Aaron Greer said there were injuries in the community of Pickwick. He said one mobile home was destroyed, three other structures have major damage, two or three have minor damage, and emergency workers are still checking three other roads where damage was reported.
Tornado watches and warnings remained in effect Sunday night for parts of Louisiana, southern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama.