ATLANTA (AP) — Big hail and heavy rains pelted the Deep South early Wednesday, and schools and churches shut down as severe storms that forecasters said could spawn powerful tornadoes began moving across the region.

Alabama’s governor declared a state of emergency because of the threat, resulting in multiple school closings, and schools in South Carolina planned to dismiss classes early.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights to Atlanta’s airport because of storms. Churches that normally have mid-week dinners or worship services canceled activities rather than risk having members out in dangerous weather.

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 National Weather Service predicts widespread thunderstorms across much of Alabama and Georgia and into the Florida Panhandle and southwestern South Carolina.

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 through the day.

Schools districts in South Carolina’s Columbia area said they would dismiss students as early as 11 a.m. and canceled after-school activities.

In Georgia, National Weather Service meteorologist Laura Belanger said about 75 percent of the state could experience severe weather beginning at daybreak and see it increase after 2 p.m. She said affected cities could include Atlanta and Augusta — the site of this week’s Masters golf tournament.

Meteorologist John De Block said he expects storms to last into the evening in southern and eastern Alabama. He says tornadoes are likely and there’s a strong chance of baseball-size hail, and hail as large as tennis balls was reported in the first wave of storms.

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.

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