WEST PLAINS, Missouri -- Storms that dumped heavy rains and tornadoes across the heartland Thursday, killing at least one person, made their afternoon trek through the Southeast and were expected to strike the region's largest metro area at rush hour, officials said.

In much of Georgia, the weather service issued a "particularly dangerous situation" watch until 9 p.m. ET as meteorologists were expecting a band of harsh storms to slam into Atlanta during its usually messy rush hour.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is anticipating high winds, hail and tornadoes, and was arranging conference calls Thursday with county emergency management offices to ensure they were prepared, said agency spokesman Ken Davis.

"They're quite concerned," Davis said. "We're staffing up for a long night tonight. Other than that, there's not a whole lot you can do."

As the storms made their way from the Plains into the Southeast, officials were trying to confirm more than a dozen reported tornado touchdowns and assess damage, particularly in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.

Homes and businesses were left in tatters, vehicles were thrown around and telephone poles uprooted.

Severe weather is predicted from Illinois to Florida, and residents are being warned to watch for tornadoes and thunderstorms.

One person was killed in southern Missouri's Howell County and four were injured, said Susie Stonner of the Missouri Emergency Management Agency.

Howell County Sheriff Robbie Crites identified the victim as 7-year-old Elizabeth Croney, The Associated Press reported. Elizabeth was killed when a tornado struck her family's mobile home about 16 miles southwest of West Plains, injuring her mother, father and brother, Crites said.

In nearby Caulfield, Delora Murta told CNN a storm destroyed a gas station, ripping off its roof and back wall. The storm also uprooted two large trees and damaged a restaurant and antiques store, she said.

"It's like a war zone down there," said Murta, an assistant manager at another gas station.

Dozens of twisters could touch down

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said the storm system could "potentially be the worst tornado outbreak in years." Myers predicts the system could generate as many as 50 tornadoes.

Tornado watches were in effect Thursday afternoon in parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida. A watch alerts the public to the possibility of a tornado.

A tornado tore through Enterprise, Alabama, west of Dothan, on Thursday afternoon, causing structural damage but no immediate reports of injuries. The roof of an elementary school reportedly was ripped off, and power lines were down.

The high school also was damaged, a spokesman for the Dale County Emergency Operations Center said. Utility crews were out "in full force," he said

The National Weather Service reported a damage swath one-eighth-mile wide in Enterprise.

The weather service declared the storm system's projected path a high-risk area, "which is a pretty rare forecast for us," one meteorologist said.

John Hart, a lead forecaster for the weather service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said high-risk forecasts are issued about three times a year.

By midafternoon "a pretty significant area of tornado potential" was expected to make its way from eastern Mississippi into Alabama, Hart said.

"These storms will be in a very favorable environment to rotate and spawn long-tracked, strong tornadoes," a weather service forecast said.

The storm system is projected to move into South Georgia and North Florida on Thursday evening before heading toward the Carolinas and Atlantic coast, Hart said.

Isolated storms can be expected in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois, Hart said. The weather service forecast added, "Widespread wind damage and isolated tornadoes are likely across much of the lower Ohio Valley."
Forecaster: 'Very large system'

High winds at 20,000 feet, a cold front running from Missouri to Texas and Gulf moisture moving northward into the Plains created "a rare severe weather setup," Hart said.

"It's a very large system," he said.

Missouri got an early taste of the storm's wrath, as a suspected tornado touched down in two areas of West Plains, about 200 miles southwest of St. Louis.

West Plains Emergency Management Director Kent Edge said the twister caused minor damage and no deaths or injuries were reported.

"Most of this happened before people were out and about," Edge said of the predawn storm.

In the north-central Missouri city of Moberly, a suspected tornado blew a tractor-trailer onto its side, injuring the driver. It also tore the roof off a business and damaged a hangar at the regional airport, said Sgt. Kevin Palmatory.

The same storm system struck northern Arkansas. Officials initially warned that the storm could bring tornadoes, but it delivered marble-size hail that covered the ground in its wake.

"It looked awful," said Fulton County Emergency Management Coordinator Al Roork. "But we just had hail and rain."

On the Missouri border, in Linn County, Kansas, a tornado touched down Wednesday evening, damaging rural farmhomes, destroying a power substation and downing power lines in this county of 12,000, Sheriff Marvin Stites said.

Though some residents were displaced, "we're still small enough that neighbor takes care of neighbor," Stites said.

Blizzard-like conditions hit states north of the storm. In Omaha, Nebraska, footage from KETV-TV showed people braving the highways in near-whiteout conditions.

A winter storm warning was issued for Omaha as the weather service predicted as much as 5 inches of snow could fall there.