ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. — They’d deal with the destruction later. First, they had to eat.
Bill Kelley and the rest of his family gathered in their home’s darkened carport, where Kelley had set up a fryer. Not 100 yards away, a segment of U.S. 41 crawled with cops and firefighters going about the grim business of cleaning up after a disaster.
Their house had no power, so they’d eat chicken wings and French fries in the gathering chill.
Then, maybe, they’d relive the moments when a man died, when trees snapped and roofs took wing, when cars tumbled end-over-end.
When a tornado twisted into life in Adairsville, 60 miles north of Atlanta.
The tornado, whose winds may have hit 135 mph, materialized about 11:30 a.m. EST, rising out of rainstorms and wind gusts stretching from Arkansas to Tennessee. It hopped over Interstate 75 close to its intersection with Ga. 140, then spun into Adairsville. It hit an apartment complex, grocery store, several homes and a lot of trees.
“I heard the storm, the rumblings,” said Alecha Kelley, Bill’s wife. “I don’t ever want to hear it again.” And then it vanished, leaving residents and state and local officials to sort through the damage.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, calling the tornado and storms a “great tragedy,” declared a state of emergency in Bartow and Gordon counties, which were hardest hit. The declaration frees up state resources to respond to the storm damage.
An Adairsville man died when a tree crushed his Bartow home on Poplar Springs Road, and officials said at least 17 people were injured in Bartow and Gordon counties. Authorities had not released the dead man’s identity Wednesday evening.
The tornado also left people trapped in homes and buildings; the Georgia Emergency Management Agency dispatched search-and-rescue teams to search for them in neighborhoods littered with shattered trees and pieces of houses. It also opened a Bartow County shelter for anyone displaced by the wild weather.
Georgia State Patrol troopers were busy, too. By 5 p.m., they had investigated 83 crashes with 33 injuries in a region encompassing the storms and tornado.
Storms also caused flooding on Atlanta streets and elsewhere, and left thousands without power as night fell.
And everywhere, in front yards and on back porches, people stepped outside to see what nature had done.
Dorothy Wilkey remembered the time: 11:32 a.m. She, her grandchildren and daughter-in-law were sitting in her Adairsville mobile home when the wind changed. It picked up speed and intensity.
Wilkey hustled everyone to the hall where they lay down. They listened to the wind, the rain beating the trailer’s vinyl sides, when — crack! A tree slammed the earth just outside their door.
“I have never, in my life — and I am 51 years old — experienced anything like this,” Wilkey said.
Nor had Denice Christian, a lifelong resident here.
“My house was shaking,” said Christian, 48. “The pictures on the wall, the glass in the windows, everything.” With rain still falling that afternoon, Christian stepped out to survey the damage, to ask her neighbors if they were OK.
“We see this in other states,” she said, “but today it hit home.”
Wednesday’s tornado was not unusual for this time of year, said Glenn Burns, WSB-TV’s chief meteorologist. Georgia, he said, averages about four tornadoes each January.
“Some of the biggest storms I’ve ever seen were in January,” he said.
It was big enough for George Adams, owner of Leisure Time RV Park. The twister passed near his park, located just off U.S. 41, knocking out power and breaking trees.
“There are limbs and trees and lines down everywhere,” Adams said. “There’s devastation all around us.” The devastation seemed to focus on the Adairsville Grocery Store. The tornado nearly flattened the building, a landmark since 1958.
“We will rebuild,” owner Dilip Patel said. “This town needs us to.”
The Kelleys, watching their fryer, simply needed to eat. Mayhem is best faced with a full stomach.
They’d been pretty lucky. Their house survived, but not their storage building: It lay in pieces. A tree also lay in their yard.
They’d think about that when the sun came up, when the rain was gone.
Meichianna, the Kelleys’ 13-year-old granddaughter, eyed the chicken wings, golden brown and bobbing in the sizzling oil.
“Bill,” she said to her grandfather, “I’m hungry. When can we eat?”
Staff writers Christian Boone and Greg Bluestein and staff photographer Jason Getz contributed to this article.