At least 6 are dead, 50 injured after tornadoes hit Georgia

Damage is widespread in same area battered by twister three years ago

March 21, 2003|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ATLANTA - Pre-dawn tornadoes raked southern Georgia yesterday, killing at least six people and injuring more than 50 others in nearly the same spot where a disastrous twister struck three years ago.

Authorities said four people died in Mitchell County and two others died in Worth County next door when tornadoes struck the peanut-growing region.

The twisters destroyed or damaged more than 150 homes and barns and caused $1 million in damage to timber forests.

The tornadoes erupted from a wave of storms that swept through much of the South.

The storms also generated tornadoes in Alabama, heavy rain and flooding in North Carolina, and high winds, rain and hail in Tennessee.

Coming a day before the official start of spring, it was not the nation's only dose of severe weather, as residents of Colorado and Wyoming were shoveling themselves free from a winter's-end blizzard that brought as much as 7 feet of snow in some areas.

State of emergency

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency because of the tornadoes, saying he was "deeply saddened and concerned for the residents of these counties, their families, their homes and their businesses."

Perdue ordered the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to work with state police and officials from the state Agriculture, Corrections, Forestry and Transportation departments in responding to the disaster.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army also were providing help.

The worst damage was in Mitchell County in southwestern Georgia, where the storm cut a swath 22 miles long and a half-mile wide near the town of Camilla, damaging as many as 150 homes, state officials said.

The tornado sliced through the farming region, destroying six chicken houses, and touched down inside the city limits, officials said.

The region was battered by a tornado on Valentine's Day in 2000 that left 21 people dead across a six-county region, 13 of them around Camilla, which has a population of 5,669.

Yesterday's tornado struck within 300 yards of the previous one, said Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the state emergency management agency.

In the tornado track

Mid-March marks the beginning of tornado season, although such storms have not been uncommon in recent winters.

"At certain times, we have a track that runs right though this area," said Chris Wainwright, emergency management director in neighboring Colquitt County, who was helping out at the Mitchell County command post.

The parallels seemed especially keen to Ron Gilliard, who runs Mitchell County Hospital in Camilla.

As with the prior tornado, yesterday's twister struck on the same day the 23-bed hospital was undergoing an inspection as part of its accreditation.

In both cases, he said, the hospital was overwhelmed. Yesterday, doctors treated 50 patients out of 150 people who came to the hospital, some because they had been left without homes.

Serious injuries

Patients with the most serious injuries, including spinal and head injuries, were transferred to three other area hospitals, Gilliard said.

In Worth County, Sheriff Freddie Tompkins said tornado warnings did little good because most people were not yet awake or lived out of range of the sirens that sounded in the town of Sylvester.

Tompkins said the tornado destroyed three homes and damaged a half-dozen others. Several barns were flattened or damaged as well, he said.

He said the tornado stopped short of hitting the town of Sylvester, which has 5,990 residents.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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