A large tornado touched down in rural southwest Georgia on Wednesday, toppling trees and power lines as dangerous storms battered the Deep South with heavy rain and hail as large as baseballs in some spots.
Forecasters said a wide area including large parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina were under threat of powerful, long-lived tornadoes. Schools, churches and some businesses shut as a precaution.
National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Stellman said a large, powerful tornado touched down about noon in an area of southwest Georgia and traveled eastward some distance on the ground.
High winds from the storm toppled power lines and several trees along roads and an interstate, Stewart County Sheriff Office dispatcher Sandra James said by phone.
She said she was unaware of any injuries or deaths immediately afterward.
The National Weather Service said strong storms were expected from Alabama to the Carolinas. Forecasters issued multiple watches and warnings as a line of weather moved through Georgia, including metro Atlanta.
Elsewhere, Alabama's governor declared a state of emergency because of the threat, resulting in multiple school closings, and many schools in South Carolina dismissed classes early.
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights to Atlanta's international airport for a time but then allowed them to resume, amid delays for both departing and arriving flights on Wednesday afternoon. Churches that normally have mid-week dinners or worship services canceled activities rather than risk having members out in dangerous weather.
With the severe storms bearing down on Augusta National, the venerable east Georgia club was shut down for the second time this week as golfers were practicing for the opening of the Masters tournament.
Officials cut short the final afternoon of practice before the tournament start, as well as the popular Par 3 Contest. Fans were ordered to leave the course. Augusta National also was forced to close Monday because of heavy rains.
In the east Alabama city of Oxford, convenience store manager Don Copeland was working up courage to go outside and look at his truck after a storm dumped so much grape-sized hail the ground turned white.
"It's a 2015. I just made a $550 payment this morning," Copeland said.
The weather service said it had received reports of baseball-sized hail in the west Alabama town of Camden, but only small ice pellets fell at the McGraw-Webb Chevrolet Inc.
"Thank goodness we did not get that. We just had pea-sized hail, and two or three cars were damaged," said Evan Bohannon, who handles online sales for the dealership.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said the state of emergency would last until the severe weather subsides. He said in a news release that 50 National Guard soldiers also will be deployed in the state.
Alabama Power Co. reported 5,500 electrical outages statewide early Wednesday, a number that could grow later. Some Alabama businesses shut down because of the weather threat.
In Georgia, National Weather Service meteorologist Laura Belanger said about 75 percent of the state could experience severe weather with the worst of it expected in the afternoon.
The outbreak of severe weather was the second to hit the South in less than a week. Storms on Sunday and Monday killed five people, including a Mississippi woman who desperately tried to direct rescuers to her sinking vehicle after it skidded into a rain-swollen creek.
Reeves contributed from Birmingham, Alabama.