RINGGOLD, Ga. - The storms that battered Georgia arrived with an almost unthinkable ferocity - tossing tractor-trailers off the interstate, flattening entire neighborhoods, ripping out large trees by the roots and reducing a busy thoroughfare of motels and restaurants to rubble.
Though Bulloch County received no damage, Portal area citizens spotted a funnel cloud overhead as they stood near Portal Elementary School on Portal-Metter Highway around 2:40 p.m. Tuesday. Although regional tornado watches had been canceled, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said the funnel cloud was indeed a tornado.
Fortunately for residents in the area, which has been pummeled by two severe storms including a tornado within the past six weeks, the storm did not touch land and no damage was reported. A number of citizens snapped photos of the twister, but none provided to the Statesboro Herald were able to be reproduced with clarity.
Particularly in Georgia's northernmost counties, the overwhelming extent of the damage began to sink in Thursday, hours after vicious weather and suspected tornadoes ripped through the state. At least 15 people were killed, and dozens more were injured. Rescue crews combed the debris for those still missing in Ringgold, a city so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out rubberneckers and looters.
Jamie Learned, 46, was still picking glass out of her hair Thursday morning. The night before, Learned and her daughter ran out of their Ringgold apartment to seek shelter on the ground floor and found themselves fighting to move against wind so powerful it yanked Learned's purse from her hand and threatened to sweep her feet out from under her.
"Someone said my legs were flying," Learned said. "I half fell and was half floating or pulling down the steps."
Learned and her 18-year-old daughter hunkered with six other tenants in a maintenance closet under the stairs of the building. After the storm had passed, they emerged to see the town looking as if it had been bombed.
A neighboring church had its steeple amputated, and its chairs were left twisted and piled in the apartments' parking lot. Elsewhere in Ringgold, cars and pickup trucks sat askew at odd angles after being tossed like toys. Metal signs advertising eateries and fuel stops were bent in half. Metal sheeting was flung through the air with such force it ended up wrapped around telephone poles.
A white van was shoved into the side of a McDonald's, where employees huddled in a metal cooler to escape the storm. Down the street, rescuers had to dig out four people stuck inside the bathroom of a BP gas station, where they had taken cover. The walls partly collapsed but still shielded the occupants from the full brunt of the wind. They escaped with minor injuries.
"I think we're extremely lucky in the business district that we didn't have more serious injuries and possibly fatalities than what happened last night," Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said.
Eight were killed in Ringgold and surrounding Catoosa County, where search-and-rescue crews focused Thursday on the remains of motels and fast-food restaurants that were ravaged near Interstate 75 as well as a rural valley where several people died.
Two people died in Spalding County when a tree fell on a home, according to Maj. Wendell Beam of the Spalding County Sheriff's Department. One man died in Rabun County when a storm hit his home. Two people were killed in Dade County, and a couple in Lamar County was found dead amid the rubble of their home.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who declared a state of emergency in 16 counties and surveyed the destruction in Ringgold and Trenton at the Georgia-Tennessee line, said afterward: "It's just hard to imagine nature can be this devastating."
Meanwhile, survivors recounted close calls with the storm and gave thanks they were spared.
Truck driver Tom Rose was hauling a shipment of bleach on I-75 and talking with his wife on his cell phone when the storm hit and sent his tractor-trailer rolling off the highway. Somehow Rose, 58, crawled away from the rig virtually unharmed.
"I knew I was in deep trouble when I saw the building coming apart across the highway," Rose said. "I told the wife, 'I have to go,' and she goes, 'Why?' And I said 'Tornado!' - and the next thing I knew I was rolling."
Victoria Mattox of Barnesville was roused from sleep by a friend's text message at 12:42 a.m. - a warning sent just in time for the 29-year-old teacher to scramble into a closet before the walls of her house began shaking.
Mattox said she heard the windows pop in an adjoining bedroom. Then the ceiling peeled off above her head.
"I saw the tornado take the rest of my house," she said.
When the storm passed seconds later, the closet Mattox had used for shelter was the only piece of her home left standing. A large tree uprooted by the winds leaned in an arch above it.
"I'm alive and well, not a scratch on me," Mattox said. "God reached down and touched me, and he said I'm not done yet. I don't know how else to say it."
National Weather Service meteorologist Jessica Fieux in Peachtree City said five survey teams were dispatched Thursday to 15 different counties trying to determine precisely how many tornadoes touched down in Georgia.
Other parts of Georgia reported severe property damage and the state insurance commissioner's office said it would be several days before damage estimates would be available.
Floyd County officials reported more than 150 homes were damaged by the storms and Bartow County reported more than 100 homes were hit, with damage ranging from shingles blown off to total destruction.
Steve Bradley, the Bartow County administrator, said residents in the wooded rural subdivision of Crow Springs were out Thursday searching the debris of their homes for clothing and other salvageable belongings.
"We had lots of cuts, bruises and broken bones," Bradley said. "But the greatest blessing for our community was that we did not have fatalities. When you see the destruction, you just think it's a miracle."
Georgia Power reported 37,000 customers remained without power statewide Thursday afternoon, including about 1,300 in metro Atlanta. The utility said it could take three days to restore electricity to the hardest hit areas. The Georgia Electric Membership Corporation said about 26,000 of its customers had lost power.
In Dade County, Lisa Rice and her two daughters - 19-year-old Stormy and 21-year-old Sky - huddled together inside a tanning bed as a suspected tornado peeled back the roof of the salon they opened three weeks ago in downtown Trenton.
"I'd already told the girls which bed we were going to climb into if we need to. So, we got in it and closed it on top of us," Rice said. "Sky said, 'We're going to die.' But, I said, 'No, just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray.'"
She said they could hear the cracking of the roof coming off, and could feel the air rushing over the tanning bed as it shook.
"Then it just stopped. It got real quiet. We waited few minutes and then opened up the bed and we saw daylight," she said.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Barnesville, Michelle Williams in Trenton, Shannon McCaffrey, Jeff Martin and Leonard Pallats in Atlanta, and Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.