Suspected tornados touched down in Florida's Panhandle and Mississippi on Monday, destroying more than a dozen homes, damaging a school while it was in session and trapping an elderly woman and possibly other residents in rubble.

The tornadoes were part of a large winter storm system that was clobbering the eastern U.S. with snow, sleet, strong winds and rain, and which came on the heels of record-breaking low temperatures.

Officials in Florida and Mississippi were investigating reports of at least three possible tornadoes. One of the apparent twisters swept through the rural town of Century, in the northwest corner of Florida's Panhandle, late Monday afternoon, destroying or significantly damaging about 10 homes, said Escambia County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka.

Donald Pugh was at home in Century when the funnel tore through his neighbourhood of small wood-frame houses and mobile homes. Walking through a maze of uprooted trees, downed power lines and shattered glass in front of his home late Monday, Pugh told The Associated Press that just minutes after the storm he and other neighbours used a chain saw to free a 94-year-old woman from the debris of her nearby home.

Severe Weather Mississippi

Officials are investigating reports of at least two possible tornadoes that accompanied a line of thunderstorms across central and southern Mississippi on Monday. (Ryan Moore/WDAM-TV/Associated Press)

"It took us quite awhile," he said. "She was trapped under a metal door that was twisted."

The woman talked to the men as they worked to free her.

"She was telling us where she was and that she was OK," Pugh said.

She appeared to have minor injuries, but was taken to a nearby hospital as a precautionary measure because of her age, Tsubooka said. The spokeswoman said fire crews were investigating "multiple calls" of people possibly trapped in the rubble, but she couldn't immediately say how many there were. She said several of the reports proved to be unfounded.

Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown said authorities didn't believe there were any people still trapped as of late Monday night, but he said crews were continuing search and rescue efforts just in case.

Streets throughout the area were blocked by uprooted trees and downed power lines. In the city's historic downtown, 100-year-old homes were jolted off their foundations, trees had fallen through some homes and mangled strips of siding and other debris were wrapped around falling power lines.

Authorities opened up one shelter and said they would close some schools in the area on Tuesday.

Century is located on the Florida-Alabama border about 72 kilometres north of Pensacola, Fl.. Pensacola news station WEAR-TV showed a large, black funnel cloud touching down on a highway near the town, and images submitted by viewers to the news station's Facebook page showed downed trees and damage to the exteriors of at least two homes. Gulf Power reported on its website that about 800 people in Century were without electricity.

Windows blown out of cars

Radar had indicated a tornado present in the storm system that moved over Century into Brewton, Ala., said Gene Jacobi with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala. He said the weather service would send crews out Tuesday to survey areas where damage and the funnel cloud had been reported.

In Mississippi, windows were blown out of cars and two gymnasiums and a library were damaged at a K-12 school in Wesson where children were in attendance when heavy thunderstorms and a possible tornado walloped at least 19 counties. There were no reports of any students injured, said Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle.

Emergency management officials also reported a destroyed mobile home in Lincoln County, Miss., while a gas station and some homes were damaged in Sylvarena in Smith County. More than 18,000 power customers were without power.

In the eastern U.S. on Monday, a day after record low temperatures plunged several states into a deep freeze, wet weather including snow, freezing rain and sleet were pummelling the region.

USA-WEATHER/

A cyclist passes pedestrians on a sidewalk on 12th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City as snow falls on Monday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Sullivan said there could be significant snowfall — 10 to 20 centimetres — in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York. Some mountainous areas could get even more snow.

With federal offices and many businesses closed for Washington's Birthday, though, many people were able to hunker down at home.

In Virginia, the state police asked motorists to delay any unnecessary travel until weather conditions could improve. By late afternoon, authorities were on the scene of 37 traffic crashes statewide, including a fatal crash in Fauquier County. Troopers also were responding to nine disabled vehicles across Virginia. They already had responded to 538 traffic crashes and 347 disabled vehicles for the day.

In North Carolina, light freezing rain, sleet and snow caused wrecks and closed schools and businesses. The National Weather Service said the precipitation was light Monday morning, but with temperatures around —5 C, it was freezing immediately on bridges, roads and other surfaces.

By Tuesday, when temperatures get higher, the rain and some runoff could cause flooding in some areas, Sullivan said.

Winter Weather

A man stops to photograph the snow-covered Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington on Monday. Bitter cold was replaced by snow, sleet and rain in the mid-Atlantic states and the South. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Teeth-chattering records

Sunday's teeth-chattering temperatures were some of the coldest on record.

In several Northeastern cities — including New York, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut — temperatures on Sunday morning dipped below —17 C, falling to minus —40 C on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

The National Weather Service said the temperature in New York City's Central Park fell to —18 C, a record low for the date. The last time it was that cold in Central Park was in January 1994.

Boston reached —23 C, breaking the record set in 1934 by several degrees.