A better picture of the damage was expected to emerge later in the day as authorities surveyed the scarred landscape. At least 35 possible tornado touchdowns were reported across several states, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The National Weather Service, which was working to confirm the twisters, said suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and five in Georgia.
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without power in both states, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide.
One tornado cut a 20-mile path across two rural Alabama communities Thursday before the worst of the weather moved across Georgia on a track south of Atlanta.
Searchers in Autauga County found a body after daybreak near a home that had been badly damaged, authorities said. That death brought the toll to seven in the county about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Selma.
At least 12 people were taken to hospitals, Ernie Baggett, Autauga County’s emergency management director, said as crews cut through downed trees looking for survivors.
About 40 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, including several mobile homes that were launched into the air, he said.
“They weren’t just blown over," he said. "They were blown a distance.”
A 5-year-old child riding in a vehicle was killed by a falling tree in central Georgia's Butts County, said Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director James Stallings. He said a parent who was driving suffered critical injuries.
Elsewhere, a state Department of Transportation worker also was killed while responding to storm damage, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said. He gave no further details.
Kemp surveyed some of the worst storm damage Friday by helicopter. In some areas, he said, rescue teams had to dig into collapsed homes to free trapped survivors.
“We know people that were stranded in homes where literally the whole house collapsed, and they were under the crawl space,” Kemp told reporters.
The governor said the storm inflicted damage statewide, with some of the worst around Troup County near the Georgia-Alabama line, where dozens of homes were hit and at least 12 people were treated at a hospital.
In Spalding County, south of Atlanta, the storm struck as mourners gathered for a wake at Peterson's Funeral Home in Griffin. About 20 people scrambled for shelter in a restroom and an office when a loud boom sounded as a large tree fell on the building.
“When we came out, we were in total shock," said Sha-Meeka Peterson-Smith, the funeral home's chief operational officer. "We heard everything, but didn’t know how bad it actually was.”
The uprooted tree crashed straight through the front of the building, she said, destroying a viewing room, a lounge and a front office. No one was hurt.
The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through the downtown area, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were tossed onto their sides and power lines were left dangling.
Plumes of thick, black smoke from a fire rose over the city. It wasn't clear whether the storm caused the blaze.
Selma Mayor James Perkins said no fatalities were reported, but several people were seriously injured. Officials hoped to get an aerial view of the city Friday.
“We have a lot of downed power lines," he said. "There is a lot of danger on the streets.”
Mattie Moore was among Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a charity downtown.
“Thank God that we’re here. It’s like something you see on TV,” Moore said of the destruction.