The Heat Is Online

Atlanta Ravaged by Possible Tornado

Atlanta braces more bad weather

Rough weather rips through downtown Atlanta overnight, injuring 27


The Associated Press, , March. 15, 2008

ATLANTA - Crews hauled broken glass and furniture out of downtown streets Saturday and homeowners surveyed damage caused by a possible tornado that caught residents and basketball fans by surprise.

More thunderstorms headed across northern Alabama toward the city Saturday. "We're bracing for another round of whatever mother nature throws at us," said Lisa Janak of the state emergency management agency.

At least 27 people were hurt Friday night, though no injuries were believed to be life-threatening.

All downtown events scheduled for Saturday were canceled, including the St. Patrick's Day parade.

"It's a mess," Janak said.

Mayor Shirley Franklin said the storm was "what we now know was a tornado." National Weather Service officials continued to say only that a "possible tornado" hit around 9:40 p.m. as a thunderstorm roared through with wind up to 60 mph.

That was just 10 minutes after the weather service issued a tornado warning.

Weather service investigators planned to examine the wreckage Saturday to determine whether a tornado caused it.

"It does look like it from what we're seeing," said Trisha Palmer, a weather service meteorologist in nearby Peachtree City. "The radar sign is very indicative of a tornado but we've got to get on the ground to make sure it wasn't strong winds."


'It was creepy'


Streets around the Georgia Dome, Phillips Arena, the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park were littered with broken glass, downed power lines, crumbled bricks, insulation and even the occasional office chair. Billboards collapsed onto parked cars. Stunned fans from the arenas and hotel guests wandered through the debris in disbelief.


"It was crazy. There was a lot of windows breaking and stuff falling," said Terrence Evans, a valet who was about to park a car at the Omni Hotel when the apparent twister hit.


There was no announcement of the approaching storm for the 18,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome for the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament. The first sign was a rumbling from above and the rippling of the Fiberglas fabric roof. Catwalks swayed and insulation rained down on players during overtime of the Mississippi State-Alabama game, sending fans fleeing toward the exits and the teams to their locker rooms.


"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, whose team won 69-67 after an hour-long delay under a roof with at least two visible tears. A later game between Georgia and Kentucky was postponed. SEC officials said the tournament's remaining games would be played at Georgia Tech.


"Ironically, the guy behind me got a phone call saying there was a tornado warning," fan Lisa Lynn said. "And in two seconds, we heard the noise and things started to shake. It was creepy."


A half-mile away, the sign of the Phillips Arena parking garage was left mangled by the storm, but basketball fans inside the arena noticed little disruption during a game between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers. Power was knocked out to about 19,000 customers.


Atlanta Fire Department Capt. Bill May said the department was working "multiple incidents" and that part of a loft apartment building collapsed, but he did not know if there were any injuries.


Shelter opened


The loft apartment building, built in an old cotton mill had severe damage to one corner, and appeared to have major roof damage. Fire officials said it "pancaked," and they were uncertain whether all the occupants had escaped.


Darlys Walker, property manager for the lofts, told WSB-TV there was one minor injury.


Taylor Morris, 29, who lives near the lofts, said he and his girlfriend took shelter in the bathroom when the storm passed over in a matter of 15 to 20 seconds.


"The whole house was shaking," he said. "We didn't know what was going on."


He said shingles and a sheet of plywood were ripped from his roof and tossed into a neighbor's tree.


May said at least 27 people were transported to hospitals. Grady Memorial Hospital, the city's large public hospital where many of the injured were taken, had broken windows but was operating as usual.


Kendra Gerlach, spokeswoman for Atlanta Medical Center, said late Friday the hospital was treating about five patients in the emergency department. She said each patient suffered minor injuries with only cuts, scraps and bruises.


May said a vacant building also collapsed, with no apparent injuries. Weiss said state officials and the American Red Cross were setting up a shelter at a senior center to house more than 100 people displaced by the storm.


More bad weather


Officials were unsure of the extent of the damage, he said, but said it "seems to be a little more widespread than it initially appeared." The Fulton County Emergency Management Agency will comb downtown at sunrise to survey damage, Weiss said.


"One thing that concerns is greatly is we have more bad weather moving in," he said.


All downtown events scheduled for Saturday were canceled, including a St. Patrick's Day parade, WXIA-TV reported.


On its Web site, CNN said its headquarters building sustained ceiling damage, allowing water to pour into the atrium, and windows shattered in the newsroom and the company's library.


In East Atlanta, downed trees, debris and power lines were strewn in the street, which was eerily quiet in the wake of the pounding hail, sheets of rain, flashes of lightning and growling thunder.


Melody and Brad Sorrells were at home with their two children when the storm hit. The family was in their living room when Melody Sorrells said she heard the huge pine in their front yard crash into their house.


"I saw it falling and we ran into the back bedrooms in the closet," she said, while turning to look at the trunk blocking the front door. "I feel sick."


The family escaped out of the back of the house. Brad Sorrells said the winds sounded like a roaring train.


"It was a tornado," he said, with arms folded.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the most recent tornado to hit a major city's downtown was on Aug. 12, 2004, in Jacksonville, Fla. Downtown tornadoes have also struck Fort Worth, Texas; Salt Lake City, Little Rock, Ark.; and Nashville, Tenn., in the past decade.


If confirmed, the tornado would be the first in recorded history to hit downtown Atlanta, said Smith, the meteorologist. The last tornado to strike inside the city was in 1975, and it hit the governor's mansion north of downtown, he said.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.