ATLANTA - Atop a 12-story downtown parking garage, the wind is still blowing.

It's howling enough to ripple your jacket, flip your hair around and make it incredibly difficult to scribble notes.

You'd think, by now, the cruel gusts would've had enough tormenting this area of the South's most populous city.

And, yet, tornado warnings were being issued Saturday afternoon for dozens of counties in north central Georgia - including Fulton, the one smacked less than 24 hours earlier by a powerful, damaging storm.

At about 9:30 p.m. Friday, a confirmed tornado swept through Atlanta's busy downtown hotel and sports-entertainment district.

At least two people died, and dozens were injured, as a result of the storm.

"You don't want to say war zone," said Mike Ellard, a Natchez, Miss., resident in town for the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, "but what else can you call it?"

It's believed to be the first tornado to ever strike the heart of the burgeoning, metropolitan city.

Tornadoes are common, a means by which nature flexes its muscle. But they rarely hit downtown areas the way Friday night's storm did.

And that's what sent Atlanta into an eerie, surreal Saturday of assessment and adjustment.

The Georgia Dome area, just to the south and west of the city's center, was the hardest hit.

The view from a parking garage at the corner of Baker and Marietta streets showed nine different large holes in the roof of the World Congress Center, the convention hall that is next door to the Georgia Dome. Safety workers examined the damage Saturday afternoon.

One news organization reported Saturday that a military ball was being held Friday night inside the World Congress Center. After the storm, young women were seen carrying their shoes, walking with bloodied, bare feet.

Video has circulated showing water flowing down a flight of stairs inside the WCC as a result of a broken main inside the building.

Light poles, parking garage gate arms and construction materials were among the items littering the downtown streets Saturday.

Traffic crawled or stood still throughout the area, since many streets were still blocked off. Policemen tried to direct vehicles as best they could, but it was challenging especially in areas where power had not been restored to stoplights.

The Omni hotel on Marietta Street - adjacent to the dome - had several windows blown out of rooms. The hotel's top level, and also a part of the World Congress Center, had an entire façade ripped to shreds.

Alabama and Mississippi State were playing an overtime period when the storm hit the Georgia Dome. SEC basketball fans inside watched, in part confusion and part fear, as arena catwalks and scoreboards swayed in the breeze fostered by the opening of two large holes in the tarp-covered dome's side.

Some inside thought initially that Kentucky's many fans were stomping their feet enough to create the noise. The large, visible hole in the roof told the patrons otherwise. The game was soon halted. It concluded after a 64-minute delay.

"I think we were just too stupid to know what was going on," said Ellard, a Mississippi State fan who was glad the game was in overtime. Otherwise, he said fans might've been outside between games when the storm arrived, creating a far more dangerous situation.

The two schools' athletic directors, Alabama's Mal Moore and Mississippi State's Larry Templeton, were watching the game together inside a portal that leads to the Georgia Dome floor.

"We were looking at the first hole when we saw the second one opened up," Templeton said. "I said, 'Mal, which way we running?' "

Because of closed streets, Ellard and his friends were forced to walk about 10 blocks from the dome to the Sheraton hotel on Courtland Street.

Along the way, Ellard believes he saw a large, maroon piece of debris that had come off the side of the Georgia Dome. He said it was about five blocks away from the dome.

"I live pretty close to where the hurricane (Katrina) hit," Ellard said, "and this was as bad as that as far as wind damage goes."

Ellard and his friends attend the tournament each year.

"This is one year we'll remember," he said.

Kentucky fan Dan Feltner was inside a hospitality suite in the dome when the storm hit. He said he leaned toward a window in the back of the suite to see outside. What he saw sounded like a scene from the Wizard of Oz, with plywood and debris zipping past the window.

"I said, 'What the hell?'" said Feltner, from Paintsville, Ky. "It was a weird feeling."

When Feltner got outside later, he realized the vastness of the destruction. He said he saw "500 cars with absolutely no glass."

At about 2 a.m. Saturday, SEC officials decided they'd move the tournament's remaining four games - including the Georgia-Kentucky second-round game postponed from Friday night - to nearby Georgia Tech in Midtown.

Three games were played Saturday inside 9,000-seat Alexander Memorial Coliseum, with Georgia having to play two games in one day by virtue of upsetting Kentucky in the early game.

Georgia coach Dennis Felton said he "vehemently opposed" the idea of playing multiple games Saturday. His idea was to play two semifinal games Sunday morning, so both teams were equally gassed to play the final game Sunday afternoon.

Mississippi State held on late Friday to beat Alabama in overtime, and so the Bulldogs were rested for their meeting Saturday night with Georgia.

Charles Bloom, the SEC's media relations coordinator, said Felton's plan was never among those discussed.

Bloom, league commissioner Mike Slive (via conference call), the five remaining schools' athletic directors and a few other SEC officials were in charge of making the tough decisions - some that didn't make everyone happy.

At 4 a.m., the group inside the "war room" determined that only traveling parties and 400 select fans would be allowed inside Alexander for Saturday's games. Schools in Sunday's final, pushed back from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and moved from CBS to ESPN2, will be allotted 1,000 seats, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton said.

The Georgia Dome was set up to seat about 20,000 fans, more than double what the Georgia Tech facility holds.

Bloom said it was implausible to allow any more fans inside the smaller Tech arena because there'd be "9,000 more fans" outside wanting to get in. He said, in that short time frame, it wasn't feasible to find additional people such as concession workers, ushers and security guards.

Fans, such as Ellard and Feltner, were forced into Stats - a high-tech sports bar on Marietta Street very near the most heavily damaged area.

Like most other people around the South, they watched the games on TV. Only they'd paid money to come to Atlanta.

"It's sad," Feltner said. "You're watching the SEC Tournament with no fans there."

Attendance for the first game was announced at 1,458. The second game between Arkansas and Tennessee had a few more fans - including a couple hundred who were allowed to run in when a hailstorm pelted the arena Saturday afternoon - and more noise.

Others tried to buy their way into the games. One Kentucky fan, Allen Pace, bought tickets from an Arkansas booster for $260.

After Kentucky's loss in the early game, he said he'd try to resell his tickets.

"If not, it was an expensive souvenir," said Pace, from Harlan, Ky. "It's crazy."

Pace then pointed to a friend that spent, all told, $2,000 to make the weekend trip from the Bluegrass State.

"I can understand the frustration," said Bloom, who acknowledged he didn't sleep at all Friday night, "but there's so many things to think about."

Felton, despite his displeasure with the format, and Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie lauded the conference's decision-making in terms of public safety.

That's the case even though the conference stands to lose thousands and thousands of dollars in terms of tickets, advertising revenues and concessions sales.

"I have no idea what we've lost," Bloom said.He said there would be a ticket-refund system, but that it was too early to tell what that would entail.

Despite some anger amongst fans, those who saw the damage were quick to put things in perspective.

"We were devastated at first about what was happening, and then we walked outside," Feltner said. "All of a sudden, we thought, 'Man, we're lucky we're OK.' "

In the wake of the chaotic preceding hours, an odd thing happened late Saturday afternoon. The sun came out over Atlanta's skyline.

"This weather just don't know what it wants to do," a security guard said, shaking his head.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.