deal2Gov. Deal talks about the response to Wednesday's devastating tornadoes.
deal1Gov. Deal describes the scene from his tour of tornado-damaged areas in northwest Georgia.
Although Hall County was spared serious damage from the worst outbreak of tornadoes in nearly 40 years, other parts of Georgia were not as fortunate.
Hardest hit were Ringgold in northwest Georgia, where a tornado killed seven, and Meriwether County in west central Georgia.
The storms killed at least 13 people in Georgia and more than 200 throughout the Southeast, including 36 in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, Ala. At least five tornadoes were reported in Georgia, according to preliminary reports from the National Weather Service.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in 16 counties and asked President Barack Obama for federal assistance. He toured the hardest hit areas of the state Thursday.
"It was certainly heart-wrenching to see how many homes had been destroyed, so many places of business, and people that were trying to get back and survey the damage," Deal said Thursday night during an appearance in Gainesville. "It was rather heart-rending. ... It was a terrible tragedy that we suffered, but it could have been much worse."
Deal said he believed the state was as prepared for the storms as it could be. He said preparedness is much better today than in 1998 when a tornado struck Hall County, killing 12.
"There was no warning, there was no way for anyone to be aware that was about to happen," Deal said of the 1998 storms.
After that storm, then-Gov. Zell Miller commissioned a study, and as a result, warning sirens that were distributed across the state and other communities purchased NOAA weather radios. Other communities instituted reverse 911, where local government calls residents to advise them of severe weather.
"I think that has been the huge difference between 1998, when we had virtually no warning, and yesterday when we had really a great deal of warning both from sirens that were sounding in various parts of the state and as well as the television media and their coverage and the warnings that they gave," the governor said.
Tornado warnings were issued Wednesday night in Dawson, Lumpkin, White and Hall counties, although damaged was minimal. Hall County escaped virtually unscathed.
"We were not called out on anything," said David Kimbrell, Hall County Emergency Management Agency director and the county's fire chief.
Kimbrell said the only local damage he was aware of involved the historic Martha Hope Cabin in Gainesville.
A tree fell on the cabin, causing gutter and roof damage to a back side corner, said Brenda Martin, Gainesville Parks and Recreation division manager for the civic center.
"It's not damaged too bad," she said.
City crews removed the tree and the damage was being repaired Thursday, Martin said. "We have rentals scheduled for this weekend" that are still a go, she added.
David Wimpy, Lumpkin County's Emergency Management Agency director and fire chief, said officials there still are assessing damage. In one area on U.S. 129 near Edwards Parkway, just past Turner's Corner, there were trees down on several houses. No one was seriously injured.
"I'm up on 129 right now and I think this area is the hardest that got it, but we're still trying to cut trees and get down to some of the houses that are down off of these county roads," Wimpy said Thursday morning.
The White County Sheriff's Office reported some minor damage, with some trees down in the northern part of the county.
Georgia Department of Transportation reported some roads in Northeast Georgia remained closed Thursday, while others that were blocked from debris have reopened.
In White County, Ga. 75 is re-opened and shoulder clean-up to be completed today; Ga. 11/US 129 has re-opened all lanes north of Turners Corner.
In Rabun County, Ga. 15/US 441 is re-opened, but Ga. 2/U.S. 76 remains closed.
In Habersham County, Ga. 197 remains closed near Lake Burton.
Deal declared a state of emergency in Bartow, Catoosa, Coweta, Dade, Floyd, Greene, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Pickens, Polk, Rabun, Spalding, Troup and Walker counties.
Scott Cagle, county fire marshal, said Hall County Fire Services sent two people to Rabun County and two to Catoosa County to aid in the recovery. Dawson County spokeswoman Cathy Brooks said several of the county's emergency services personnel have traveled to Ringgold to help.
"We have major devastation in the city of Ringgold," Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said. "The city will be closed for business today as we search through debris in hopes of finding other people that are missing."
Jackson EMC reported only scattered outages overnight, 12 overall in the Jefferson district, five in Gwinnett and one in the Gainesville district. All were restored early Thursday.
The Georgia Electric Membership Corporation said about 17,000 of their customers had lost power during the storms.
Deal's first stop Thursday was in Dade County.
"I got out of the helicopter and walked over to a family that was standing by the back of a pickup truck," he said. "A gentleman reached out to shake my hand and I said, ‘Well it's certainly a bad day, I'm sorry about that.' And he said, ‘No, it's not a bad day. Yesterday my daughter and my son, who are standing right here, were in that building' and he pointed to a building that was totally demolished. And he said, ‘It's a good day; they're alive.' So we all have to all be thankful for the blessings we have."
Times staffers Michelle Boaen Jameson, Jeff Gill, Mike Hill and Mitch Clarke, as well as Associated Press, contributed to this report.