RINGGOLD, Ga. (AP) — Severe storms turned deadly as they roared across north Georgia, with authorities early Thursday reporting at least 13 people killed in the state and dozens more injured after possible tornadoes and high winds crushed homes and uprooted trees.
At least five tornadoes were reported in Georgia since the storms began Wednesday, according to preliminary reports from the National Weather Service. Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state emergency in 16 counties and planned to tour storm-damaged areas on Thursday.
In the north Georgia town of Ringgold, a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings, trapping an unknown number of people. At least seven people were killed in the county, according to state and local officials.
"We have major devastation in the city of Ringgold," Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers told reporters early Thursday. "The city will be closed for business today as we search through debris in hopes of finding other people that are missing."
Two people were killed in Spalding County when a tree fell on a home, according to Maj. Wendell Beam of the Spalding County Sheriff's Department. Two people were killed in Dade County, and two others in Lamar County. Details on those deaths were not immediately available.
As daylight arrived Thursday, damage from the storms was evident at an interstate highway off-ramp leading to Ringgold. Trees had been ripped down, part of a bridge's railing was torn and a tractor-trailer had toppled onto its side, spilling its cargo. Fire and rescue vehicles could be seen along the overpass.
A resident, James Teems, said he was near the city center Wednesday night and saw a string of fast-food restaurants that had apparently been demolished by the storm. He said the scene was chaotic.
"Everyone was looking for everyone," Teems said.
Officials said about 30 people from Catoosa County were taken to area hospitals, and 150 people were staying at a shelter at Lakeview Fort-Oglethorpe High School.
Lisa Janak-Newman with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency described the situation Thursday morning as very active.
"We have a lot of trees down and a lot of roads closed," she said.
The governor declared a state of emergency late Wednesday that covered Floyd, Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties. His spokesman, Brian Robinson, said that list would likely grow.
"Right now, we're seeing fatalities, injuries and serious property damage in northwest Georgia," Deal said in a statement. "We encourage Georgians to take every precaution tonight, and we will keep those who have suffered greatly in our thoughts and prayers."
Authorities said a Ringgold motel was also damaged, prompting about 125 people to be evacuated. There were also reports of significant damage to a high school and a middle school in the Ringgold area, and Catoosa County schools were closed for the rest of the week.
Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander said the destruction in Ringgold was extensive. Neighboring Whitfield County sent emergency responders and police to Catoosa County on the Tennessee state line.
"A lot of the town is destroyed and so is a large part of the county," Hullander said.
In Dade County, Coroner Johnny Ray Gray said the south end of Trenton suffered heavy damage, including an apartment complex in the town about 125 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Georgia Power reported 54,000 customers without power statewide Thursday morning. That total included about 16,000 customers in Floyd County, where company spokesman Jeff Wilson said workers were being hampered by numerous downed trees. The Georgia Electric Membership Corporation said about 17,000 of their customers had lost power.
In Floyd County, officials reported more than 150 homes were damaged by the storms.
"The wind was blowing so hard it felt like my truck was going to blow over," motorist Dan Montgomery told the Rome News-Tribune. "People were panicking and turning and trying to get out of the way."
Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey, Jeff Martin and Leonard Pallats in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.