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Birmingham, Ala. – Storms with heavy rain and strong winds raked across the central United States from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes on Thursday ahead of an arctic blast that forecasters said could bring near-record cold to the South.

Temperatures were predicted to drop as much as 30 degrees in a few hours, and forecasters said severe storms were possible from Alabama to New England.

Winds gusted above 30 mph (50 kph), and trees were toppled in the western Carolinas and Tennessee, where news outlets reported at least five people were injured when trees hit vehicles. Tornado watches stretched from South Carolina to northern Pennsylvania.

More than 85,000 homes and businesses were in the dark because of intermittent power outages from Louisiana to West Virginia.

A freeze warning reached across more than dozen states, from southwestern Texas into the South and Midwest. Overnight lows could dip into the upper 20s in parts of the Deep South, forecasters said.

A blanket of snow caused travel problems in Illinois, meanwhile, with snow forcing the cancellation of more than 200 flights at Chicago’s international airports on Halloween.

As much as 3 inches (5 centimeters) of snow driven by 50 mph (80 kph) winds was predicted around the Great Lakes.

The storms provided another round of drought relief across the Southeast after weeks of dry weather endangered crops and increased fire risks. But a new federal report showed much of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are still too dry.

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