Tornado Rips Through Atlanta

ATLANTA — On a Saturday that was expected to be filled with marching bands, basketball tournament games and convention festivities, Atlantans and tens of thousands of visitors awoke to closed streets, downed trees, damaged buildings and canceled events.

By evening, work crews “were making good progress” and most streets were expected to be passable by Monday morning, said Atlanta fire Capt. Bill May.

Hundreds of people milled around Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome and hotels Saturday taking cell phone photographs of damage from a tornado that swept through downtown late Friday. Meanwhile, residents of some in town neighborhoods began the hard labor of cleanup.

Others fled the city several hotels and motels near the airport were filled by visitors displaced from downtown hotels and Atlantans escaping homes without electricity.

Damage from the tornado the first to hit downtown since such record keeping began in the 1880s was estimated to exceed $150 million. Mayor Shirley Franklin declared the city in a state of emergency early Saturday, and by midafternoon, more storms rolled through the city.

Gov. Sonny Perdue promised Saturday to “continue to utilize every resource at our disposal, including asking our federal partners for assistance if necessary, to mitigate the impact of this severe weather.”

Two people were killed in northwest Georgia. Floyd County Deputy Chief Coroner Tony Cooper said Jerry Albers, 71, was killed by flying debris. A Polk County couple were yanked from their house and tossed into a field. The woman, Bonnie Gene Turner, in her early 60s, was killed, said Coroner Trey Litesey.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said the bulk of Atlanta’s $150 million damage occurred at the Georgia World Congress Center, where windows were shattered, seats were scattered and portions of the ceiling were destroyed.

John Heid, a spokesman for Allstate Insurance, said Saturday that it was too early to know the financial impact of the storms on private property owners.

Franklin warned people to stay out of the hardest-hit areas of the city downtown, Vine City, Cabbagetown and the Cotton Mill Lofts.

“Do not use this as an opportunity for sightseeing,” she said.

The city put 125 extra officers on the streets to patrol the areas where the tornado struck.

Georgia Power workers were also out in force trying to restore electricity to customers who were without power Saturday evening.

Friday night’s storm affected the rich and the poor, the living and even the dead.

A downtown penthouse owned by media mogul Ted Turner in the Bona Allen building was damaged by the winds that also blew away all the belongings of a homeless woman sleeping under the Boulevard bridge over 1-20.

On Saturday, the woman, who gave her name only as Tina, stood at the exit ramp holding a sign printed in black marker on cardboard, saying “homeless on the street need help.”

She said she and several other homeless people under the bridge heard “a big old coughing sound” before their clothes and food were swept up.

Oakland Cemetery lost dozens of trees and monuments. Ancient magnolias were split, a 20-foot obelisk that had marked the graves of the Winship family lay broken in half over a path, and a shredded window blind draped like a necklace around the marker of a Confederate soldier.

“It looked like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” said cemetery sexton Sam Reed, who was in his office when the storm hit. “Everything was flying around.”

At 170 Boulevard in Cabbagetown, about 50 search-and-rescue team members worked on a building where three areas, including an elevator shaft, collapsed. Firefighters needed to first shore up the rubble and debris before searching open areas in it for people, May said. The hunt for possible survivors or bodies was expected to continue into today.

Cabbagetown residents Stephen and Diane Smallish were watching a “Law and Order” rerun Friday night when the storm hit. Shortly thereafter, a huge oak tree landed on their house, crushing the roof.

The roar of the tornado was so loud, they didn’t hear the tree hit their house.

“Once I heard the roar, I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Stephen Smallish said. “I went out on the porch, got my dog and brought my dog inside. The roar lasted about 20 seconds and everything was shaking.”

Capt. Robert Parker of the Salvation Army was busy with his crew serving water, multigrain bars and coffee to emergency medical service workers and displaced people at Cabbagetown’s Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, which was heavily damaged by the storm.

In East Atlanta Village near Cabbagetown, shops and restaurants were shuttered Saturday night and traffic lights stayed dark because of power outages.

A wounded Grady helps

Ambulances responded to 106 calls between 9 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, said Denise Simpson, spokeswoman for Grady EMS. Fifty people were taken to four hospitals, including 20 to Grady.

The same strong winds that sent patients to Grady also damaged buildings and ambulances there. Storm damage knocked three ambulances out of commission, including Grady’s only operating neonatal transport unit.

At Hughes Spalding pediatric hospital, owned by Grady and operated by Children’s Healthcare, staff members moved all 13 patients in residence to the basement for the duration of the storm, but the building’s only damage was the loss of a few windows, said Kevin McClelland, spokesman for Children’s Healthcare.

“Within an hour, we were accepting patients again,” he said.

At least two historic buildings in the Grady complex suffered moderate damage and 17 of 18 buildings lost power, Grady officials said Saturday, but the main hospital remained up and running.

The National Weather Service declared Friday night’s tornado a category F2, with the strongest winds reaching 135 mph. Tornadoes can reach up to a category F5 with 300 mph winds. The tornado, 200 yards at its widest, left a path of damage six miles long, meteorologist Mike Griesinger said.

Atlantans had about eight minutes’ warning a little less than the average amount for a tornado, Griesinger said. The warning paled in comparison with Saturday’s updates, which kept the public informed about the tempestuous weather throughout the day.

Events affected by storm

Tens of thousands of basketball fans were disappointed when the SEC’s men’s tournament was moved from the Georgia Dome, where sections of the roof were ripped away, to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, which holds 16,000 fewer people.

Officials from the SEC, the schools remaining in the tournament and the Dome had deliberated from midnight to roughly 4 a.m. Saturday before announcing a new schedule and ticket policy. Access to the remaining games was limited to athletes’ families, cheerleaders, bands and other credentialed individuals, the SEC announced.

It wasn’t just basketball fans who were disappointed. The city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled. The Spring Atlanta Home Show and the Thomas P. Hinman Dental Meeting, both scheduled for the Georgia World Congress Center, were among the casualties of the storm. A Saturday night concert, the Winter Jam Spectacular Tour, expected to draw 18,000 people to Philips Arena, was canceled even though the arena wasn’t damaged.

Not far from Philips Arena, a vacant two-story building across from Centennial Olympic Park collapsed. Two of the park’s gigantic Olympic torches toppled over. Massive pieces of metal siding peeled off a Marietta Street parking garage and wrapped around poles or clogged sidewalks and streets.

“I have not seen anything like this before,” Atlanta fire Battalion Chief Gerry Rusinski said. “It looked like 9/11 when we pulled up.”

The mayor said the city would be working around the clock to clean up and get businesses, hotels and public venues back in operation.

“We are moving in textbook fashion to make sure that both state and federal government officials are engaged in what we are doing,” Franklin said.

Tony Barnhart, Chandler Brown, Celine Bufkin, Rhonda Cook, Tim Eberly, Anisha Frizzel, Marcus K. Garner, Phil Gast, Sonji Jacobs, Drew Jubera, Paul Kasko, Mike Knobler, Andy Miller, Craig Schneider, Jeffrey Scott, Michelle E. Shaw, Ben Smith, Leon Stafford, Eric Stirgus and Chip Towers contributed to this article.

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