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Georgia Hit by Deadliest Tornadoes In 64 Years

Tornadoes cut 10-mile path of destruction in Georgia; 22 are killed, scores injured

The Boston Globe, Associated Press, Feb. 15, 2000

CAMILLA, Ga. - Tornadoes descended on rural Georgia early yesterday, killing 22 people and destroying dozens of homes in the southwestern part of the state. More than 100 were hurt.

In the town of Camilla, houses and mobile homes were flattened, their metal and siding mangled and strewn across yards and streets.

''All you heard was a roar, '' said Johnny Jones, whose mobile home south of Camilla was thrown on its side. He said he freed his 14-year-old son, who was pinned under a washing machine, and they crawled out a window.

''All I could see was that everything was demolished. People were hollering and crying `Where's my child?''' he said.

The tornadoes struck shortly after midnight as a line of thunderstorms rumbled through the Southeast, scarring property from Arkansas to Georgia. Authorities in Camilla and surrounding Mitchell County said two twisters cut a path 10 miles long and 11/2 miles wide through the county.

''It hit the impoverished and the affluent,'' said Liz McQueen, a Red Cross volunteer who was working at a temporary morgue near Camilla.

Fourteen people died in Mitchell County, a primarily rural area dotted with cotton and peanut farms, chicken processing plants, textile factories, and a state prison. Governor Roy Barnes, who flew over the area to assess the damage, declared Mitchell and three other counties disaster areas.

The twisters were the deadliest in Georgia since 1936, when 203 people were killed by tornadoes in Gainesville, northeast of Atlanta.

The winds snatched up the trailer where Janet and James Madeiras and their son Travis, 12, had been sleeping, tossing them out and knocking the trailer on top of them.

James Madeiras, 60, said they had just seconds to react. ''The moment I heard it, the bed dropped down and the walls came tumbling down on top of us,'' he said.

''I was saying, `Oh my God!' and started digging,'' Janet Madeiras said. ''When I got outside and looked around, everything was gone. You could hear moaning and crying.''

The family escaped without major injuries and moved into a shelter with several neighbors. Families of the injured and missing jammed phone lines and searched hospitals for their loved ones. There were so many injuries that people were sent to hospitals as far away as Tallahassee.

Mitchell County Hospital, with only 33 beds, was swamped with more than 120 injured people early yesterday. In the hours after the tornadoes hit, Mitchell - the only medical facility within 30 miles - looked like a battlefield.

There were four times as many wounded patients as beds, overwhelming doctors and nurses. The hospital lost its water connection and, for several minutes before a generator kicked in, its power supply.

''It was absolutely the worst thing I've ever seen,'' said Cara Tyson, the hospital's assistant director of nursing, who fought blinding rain to reach the hospital. ''It was a disaster - people were crying, children were hurt. It was like a battlefield.''

Those with major trauma eventually were sent to other hospitals better equipped to handle them.

One elderly woman waited hours with a gash down her forehead, letting more seriously injured storm victims go before her for treatment. Spokesman Rick Ivey said 120 patients were treated at the hospital.

At Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville, a lost 4-year-old girl was at first too terrified to tell doctors her name. Her mother had not been found yesterday.

A preliminary assessment found 198 structures destroyed and more than 160 damaged, said Ed Tynes, supervisor of a Red Cross shelter in the gymnasium of the Mitchell County Middle School. More than 5,000 people were without power.

This story ran on page A03 of the Boston Globe on 2/15/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.