Massive storm pounds southeast; 2 dead
ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. -- A massive storm system raked the Southeast on Wednesday, spawning tornadoes and dangerous winds that overturned cars on a major Georgia interstate and demolished homes and businesses, killing at least two people.
In northwest Georgia, the storm system tossed vehicles on Interstate 75 onto their roofs. The highway was closed for a time, and another main thoroughfare remained closed until crews could safely remove downed trees and power lines from the road.
WSB-TV in Atlanta aired footage showing an enormous funnel cloud bearing down on Adairsville, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, as the storm ripped through the city's downtown area. The system flattened homes and wiped out parts of a large manufacturing plant. Pieces of insulation hung from trees and power poles, while the local bank was missing a big chunk of its roof.
One person was killed and nine were hospitalized for minor injuries, state emergency management officials said. Residents said no traces remained of some roadside produce stands -- a common sight on rural Georgia's back roads.
One other death was reported in Tennessee after an uprooted tree fell onto a storage shed where a man had taken shelter.
In Adairsville, the strange mix of debris in one yard showed just how dangerous the storm had been: a bathtub, table, rolls of toilet paper and lumber lay in the grass next to what appears to be a roof. Sheets of metal dangled from a large tree like ornaments.
"The sky was swirling,'' said Theresa Chitwood, who owns the Adairsville Travel Plaza. She said she went outside to move her car because she thought it was going to hail. Instead, the passing storm decimated a building behind the travel plaza.
"It sounded like a freight train coming through,'' she said. "It looks like a bomb hit it.''
Adairsville is a small town in the Oothcalooga Valley, with a historic district lined with trees and a mix of pre-Civil War and Victorian homes. It proclaims itself the first Georgia town to be listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places and looks to draw tourists with its antique shops.
Powerful winds ripped through the entire region, with gusts powerful enough to topple tractor-trailers in several places.
In Adairsville, several were flipped on their side in the parking lot of a gas station and restaurant. Danny Odum, a trucker from Marion, Ill., had stopped for breakfast when the suspected tornado hit. After it passed, Odum said he went outside to find his truck that was hauling diapers on its side with his dog Simon, a Boston terrier, still inside. Simon was scared but otherwise fine.
Bartow County fire chief Craig Millsap said there were reports that two storm warning sirens may have failed, but he said the failed sirens were not in the hardest-hit area.
Access to the area was being restricted, and there was a report of a gas leak in the area, officials said. A shelter was being established at a community recreation center -- temperatures were expected to plummet to the 30s and 40s overnight.
Conditions remained ripe for tornadoes into Wednesday afternoon, and authorities were still investigating several sites to determine if damage was caused by twisters. Since Tuesday, the system had caused damage across a swath from Missouri to Georgia.
In recent days, people in the South and Midwest had enjoyed unseasonably balmy temperatures in the 60s and 70s. A system pulling warm weather from the Gulf of Mexico was colliding with a cold front moving in from the west, creating volatility.
One person was reported injured by lightning in Arkansas during the storm's eastward trek. Two people suffered minor injuries when a mobile home was blown off its foundation in Kentucky. Only one minor injury was reported in Mississippi, where officials praised residents for heeding warnings and being prepared.
In Tennessee, officials confirmed that a tornado with peak wind speeds of 115 mph touched down in Mount Juliet. No serious injuries were reported there, though the path of damage was about 150 yards wide, including homes, a warehouse and an automotive business.
At a shopping center in Mount Juliet, large sheets of metal littered the parking lot, light poles were knocked down and bits of fiberglass insulation were stuck in the trees.
One wall of a Dollar General convenience store collapsed, and the roof was torn off. Mark Fulks Jr. runs Mark's Automotive with his father in a building attached to the Dollar General. The garage door was blown off his shop and sitting on one of the cars inside, and Fulks said several of the cars they were working on had their windshields blown out.
A nearby office building and a distribution center for The Tennessean newspaper also had severe damage. Rick Martin, who bags the newspapers and helps his wife deliver them, was shocked when he saw what was left of the distribution center.
The metal frame of the building still stood, but its cinderblock walls had crumbled, and papers and plastic bags littered the trees.
"We feel real lucky,'' he said on Wednesday morning as looked at the damage. "I would have hated to be in here when this happened.''
The deaths reported Wednesday ended the nation's longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed tornado records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24, when a person was killed in a home in Highlands County, Fla. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.
The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in a mobile home in Scott County, Mo.