by Larry Copeland and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. - A winter tornado that pummeled this northwest Georgia community killed one person, flipped automobiles and destroyed entire buildings.
The storms were part of a huge, violent system that continued to rake the southern USA Wednesday as a ferocious cold front roars toward the Eastern Seaboard. A solid line of storms stretched all the way from Buffalo to New Orleans.
The storms that spawned the tornado moved across Georgia and metropolitan Atlanta, forcing authorities to briefly shut down Interstate 75 and to issue a ground stops at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Several school systems across the Atlanta metro area, including Floyd, Clayton and DeKalb Counties, canceled after-school activities as heavy rain pelted parts of the region.
About 8,500 customers were without electricity, according to Georgia Power. The hardest-hit area seemed to be this community about 40 miles north of Atlanta, where there were multiple injuries.
Storms have raced across the southern and central USA on Tuesday and Wednesday, blacking out power to thousands, downing trees and damaging homes.
During this outbreak, there have been more than 400 reports of severe weather, mainly high winds and large hail. There have been nine reports of tornadoes.
The rapidly changing conditions created a risk of tornadoes in the nation's Southeast through the day Wednesday. The Storm Prediction Center said the tornado threat was greatest in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.
In Adairsville, downed and sagging power lines, homes with damaged roofs and uprooted or toppled trees are everywhere.
William Penn and his wife, Dianne, were huddled in the hallway near the front door of their house on Casey Street when the tornado hit. The storm ripped off most of the roof and blew out two windows.
"I was on the porch, and I told William it's about to hit," says Dianne Penn. "As soon as I said that, I saw the funnel and we got into the hall." The Penns say they don't usually see tornadoes this early in the year.
Another death was reported when a large tree blew down on a shed in Nashville, where a man was sheltering, police told Nashville broadcaster WTVF-TV. Authorities did not immediately release further details when contacted by the Associated Press.
In Arkansas, a person was reported injured by lightning during the storm's eastward trek. The storm marched just ahead of a cold front as the volatile system headed toward the Eastern Seaboard, dumping heavy rain in Kentucky and parts of Tennessee.
Thousands were reported without power in Tennessee, where tornado and flash flood warnings were issued for various counties and a tractor-trailer truck was blown on its side by high winds.
Entergy Arkansas reported at least 9,000 power outages in several communities around Arkansas at the height of the storm, including in and around Little Rock.
Authorities in Arkansas planned to check reports of possible twisters kicked up near a Little Rock suburb and in two locations in northwestern Arkansas. Power lines fell, trees were toppled, and some homes suffered damage to rooftops around the state.
The National Weather Service reported that suspected straight-line winds of up to 80 mph were reported in Arkansas late Tuesday night along with flooding in low-lying areas of Jonesboro in Arkansas' northeastern corner. Police in the Arkansas community of Monticello reported a person was injured by lightning late Tuesday, but the injury was not life-threatening.
The tornado death in Georgia ends 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. Before today, the last one was June 24, when a person was killed in a home in Highlands County, Fla. That was 220 days ago.
The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in a mobile home in Scott County, Mo.
While the South coped with severe weather, wintry weather slammed the northern Plains and upper Midwest, according to AccuWeather. Up to half a foot of snow could fall in portions of Iowa, Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Winter storm warnings were out across all of those states.
Lake-effect snow, heavy in some snowbelt areas, will persist Thursday and Friday in the Great Lakes, the Weather Channel predicted.
Bitterly cold air will roar into the northern Plains and Midwest. Low temperatures tonight will drop to 30 degrees below zero in portions of North Dakota, AccuWeather predicted. The high temperature Thursday in Minneapolis is forecast to be 1 degree.
The cold will move toward the East Coast on Thursday and Friday, though temperatures will not be nearly as cold as in the Midwest.
This week, a large swath of the Midwest and South bathed in unseasonably balmy temperatures that reached the high 70s in some areas.
The temperature in the central Missouri college town of Columbia reached 77 degrees on Monday, a record for January, and students exchanged their winter coats for shorts and flip-flops as freezing rain gave way to spring-like conditions. Foul weather made a quick return in a downpour that flooded some streets near the University of Missouri campus Tuesday.
Chicago residents also have been whiplashed by recent weather extremes. Workers who suffered through subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills a week ago strolled through downtown without coats Tuesday as temperatures soared into the mid-60s.
Carol Krueger, who lives in the Chicago suburb of North Hoffman Estates, noted that a few days ago, she was struggling to drive through blowing snow. All she needed Tuesday was a light jean jacket, although by Thursday, temperatures were likely to barely reach 20 degrees.
"It's bizarre, it's scary," Krueger said of the swiftly changing weather.
Copeland reported from Adairsville; Rice from McLean, Va.
Contributing: Associated Press
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY