ATLANTA – Two people in rural northwest Georgia are dead and dozens injured after a series of severe storms moved through the state, producing the first-ever tornado to hit downtown Atlanta.
A woman was killed in Polk County early Saturday afternoon when a storm demolished her home and threw her and her husband into a field, while an elderly man in neighboring Floyd County was killed by flying debris as he sat in his home, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Officials have not released the victims' names.
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Calls to the Polk and Floyd County sheriff's departments were not immediately returned.
National Weather Service officials were expected to be in both counties later Sunday to determine whether the damage was caused by a tornado or straight-line winds, meteorologist Vaughn Smith said.
In Atlanta, crews began cleaning up debris and broken glass Saturday from the tornado that struck the city with little warning the previous night. The storm cut a 6-mile path of destruction through the city with winds gusting up to 130 miles per hour, leaving homes crushed by centuries-old trees and numerous windows shattered in high-rise office buildings and hotels.
In neighborhoods just east of downtown -- like the historic Cabbagetown where a loft apartment building partially collapsed and homes were destroyed -- residents ducked under tables and hid in closets as the twister made its way through the city.
"It was just like everyone says it is -- the proverbial freight train," said Carol Grizzel as she cleaned debris out of her yard.
Some of the cleanup in Atlanta was delayed by a series of strong storms that moved through the state Saturday, bringing torrential rain, high winds and quarter-sized hail.
Residents had about eight minutes of warning before the twister struck downtown Friday night, weather officials said. The tornado, classified as an EF2 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, lasted about 20 minutes.
Many residents were surprised by the storm, as were basketball fans at the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the Georgia Dome and the NBA matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers at Philips Arena. The warning was not displayed at either game.
At least 27 people were hurt Friday night, though no injuries were reported to be life-threatening.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin declared a state of emergency in the city Saturday. Curious onlookers fanned out across the city taking pictures and surveying the damage in their neighborhoods.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine estimated damage from Friday night's storm at $150 million to $200 million. He said at least $100 million of the damage occurred at the Georgia World Congress Center, a state convention facility near the CNN Center.
He said the storm broke through the roof, sucking walls, glass and furnishings out like a vacuum.
"Had the building been occupied by a significant number of people, you would probably have had major injuries and loss of life," he said.
The storm smashed hundreds of skyscraper windows, blew furniture and luggage out of hotel rooms and crumbled part of an apartment building. Streets were littered with broken glass, downed power lines, crumbled bricks and insulation. Billboards rested atop parked cars.
CNN said ceiling damage at its headquarters allowed water to pour into an atrium. Windows were shattered in the CNN.com newsroom and the company's library. A water line inside the building broke, turning a staircase into a waterfall.
"It was crazy. There was a lot of windows breaking and stuff falling," said Terrence Evans, 23, a valet who was outside the Omni Hotel, which adjoins the CNN Center.
A spokesman for the Omni Hotel said guests and staff were quickly moved to the exhibit hall and ballroom and that the only injuries were "some cuts and scrapes."
Power was knocked out to about 19,000 customers, and most had it restored by Saturday night, said Jeff Wilson, a spokesman with Georgia Power.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said the last tornado to hit a major city's downtown was on Aug. 12, 2004, in Jacksonville, Fla. Downtown tornadoes have also struck Fort Worth, Texas; Salt Lake City; Little Rock, Ark.; and Nashville, Tenn., in the past decade.
This was the first tornado on record in downtown Atlanta, weather officials said. The last tornado to strike inside the city was in 1975, and it hit the governor's mansion north of downtown.