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Ugly weather hits holiday travelers

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(CNN) — Clouds dumped rain and snow across much of the continental United States on Wednesday, causing delays at major airports and dangerous road conditions for holiday travelers.

The National Weather Service predicts heavy rainfall and strong thunderstorms in the Southeast, rain that will turn into snow from Illinois to northern Michigan, and more snow from Washington state to the western High Plains.

Flight delays and cancellations are expected to grow throughout the day at major airports including those in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington.

At Philadelphia International Airport, the FAA reported delays of about an hour Wednesday morning, due to wet, foggy conditions.

Mountain states should see much heavier snow, and rain and slush will spray patches of gray melancholy on the holiday scenery in the Northeast on Wednesday and Thursday.

The sun should return to a broad section of the southern and central U.S. on Thursday, and gentle snow will lay down a white Christmas on doorsteps from the California mountains through parts of the Midwest.

AAA projects that 98.6 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles this holiday season, a 4% increase from last year. They can take advantage of plummeting gas prices — which, averaging $2.25 nationwide, are down 69 cents a gallon from a year ago.

Storms kill four in Mississippi

On Wednesday, a tornado watch lingered in parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Farther west, people grieved and cleared rubble in southern Mississippi, where a tornado system killed four people Tuesday night and packed an emergency room with dozens of injured.

Tuesday’s storm tore to pieces a mobile home in the countryside of Jones County, Mississippi, killing two people, Sheriff Alex Hodge said.

“There were other brick and mortar homes that had major damage, but we have no other injuries reported,” he said. The storm also wrecked a church.

A few dozen miles to the southwest, two more people died in storms in Marion County, police said. The hospital overflowed with injured people.

“Fifty patients were seen in the ER today because of the storm,” said Marion General Hospital spokeswoman Millie Swan. “We are operating on generator power. Columbia is completely out of power.”

At least 6,300 households lost power and roads were cut off. Emergency operators have heard of people injured and trapped. Swan expects more injured patients to come into the hospital in coming days, once they can make it in.

State of emergency

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant issued a state of emergency for Marion and Jones counties on Tuesday.

On a highway in between the two counties, the storm damaged a children’s day care center, but spared the children inside.

Unharmed, they were moved to a nearby bank building.

In nearby Louisiana, not far from the town of Amite, authorities said a windstorm damaged 15 homes.