ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. - As rain pelted down, Kandi Cash trudged through the splintered debris of her grandparents' house, hoping to salvage photos and other prized family keepsakes after a day of violent storms raked the Southeast, leaving two people dead.
The demolished home was one of many in the Georgia city of Adairsville splintered by a massive storm front that tore across several states Wednesday, unleashing tornadoes and dangerous winds that easily flipped cars and trucks and smashed homes and businesses.
On the lot where Cash's grandparents had their house also was a mobile home where her aunt lived. The property also had another small house her cousin was fixing up to move into after a planned May wedding. All three homes were demolished: toys, Christmas ornaments, children's clothing, household items and just about everything else that makes up a home were strewn about.
"I'm just picking up pictures," the 28-year-old Cash said. "I've found the most important ones, like when my cousin was born and her late daddy, the ones that matter most."
Cash, who lives in nearby Cartersville, rode out the violent weather in a neighbour's basement. Once the worst had passed, she called her family in Adairsville and was relieved to hear they'd all made it to a cinderblock storm shelter under her grandparents' home.
"I just told them that the Lord was watching after them," she said. "The houses can be rebuilt. The most important thing was that they were safe."
WSB-TV in Atlanta aired footage of an enormous funnel cloud bearing down on Adairsville. Winds flattened homes and wiped out parts of a big manufacturing plant in the city about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. Pieces of insulation dangled from trees and power poles. A bank lost a big chunk of its roof.
Anthony Raines, 51, was killed when a tree crashed down on his mobile home, crushing him on his bed, Bartow County Coroner Joel Guyton said. Nine other people were hospitalized for minor injuries, authorities said.
Elsewhere, one other death was reported in Tennessee when an uprooted tree fell onto a storage shed where a man had taken shelter.
Near Adairsville, the storms tossed vehicles on Interstate 75 onto their roofs, forcing the route to close for a time.
"The sky was swirling," said Theresa Chitwood, who owns the Adairsville Travel Plaza.
The storm decimated a building behind the plaza. Gusting winds knocked several tractor-trailers on their sides in a parking lot.
Danny Odum and Rocky Depauw, truckers from Marion, Ill., had stopped for breakfast when the suspected tornado hit. They ran for an inner room when they saw debris flying.
"I've been stopping here for probably 40 years," Odum said. "I just stopped and had breakfast this morning, and this happened."
Afterward, Odum found his truck with a haul of diapers flipped on its side with his Boston terrier Simon scared but unscathed in the overturned vehicle. Depauw's truck, anchored by a heavy load of cat litter, was still upright.
A shelter was set up at a recreation centre as temperatures plummeted to the 30s and 40s overnight and people had no heat or power. About 12,000 customers statewide had no electricity.
Around the Southeast, meanwhile, authorities were investigating several reports of twisters from the system that had raked Missouri and Arkansas on Tuesday before heading eastward. Some tornado watches remained in effect early Thursday along Virginia's coast as the storm headed off.
In Tennessee, officials confirmed that a tornado with peak winds of 115 mph touched down in Mount Juliet. No serious injuries were reported even though the path of damage was about 150 yards wide. At least six other tornadoes were reported statewide.
At a shopping centre in Mount Juliet, large sheets of metal littered the parking lot and light poles were knocked down. One wall of a Dollar General store collapsed, and the roof was torn off.
A distribution centre 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. The metal frame of the building still stood, but its cinderblock walls had crumbled.
"We feel real lucky," he said Wednesday morning as he looked at the damage. "I would have hated to be in here when this happened."
The deaths ended the nation's longest break between tornado fatalities since detailed records began being kept in 1950, according to the Storm Prediction Center and National Climatic Data Center. The last one was June 24 in Florida. That was 220 days ago as of Tuesday.
The last day with multiple fatalities was June 4, when three people were killed in Missouri.
Associated Press writers Kristin M. Hall in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and Phillip Lucas in Atlanta contributed to this report.