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Six Killed in Georgia Tornadoes

Twisters in two counties injure more than 50 and damage or destroy 150 homes and buildings.

March 21, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Predawn tornadoes raked southern Georgia on Thursday, 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 perished in Worth County when tornadoes struck the peanut-growing region, destroying or damaging more than 150 homes and barns and causing $1 million in damage to timber forests.

The tornadoes erupted from a wave of storms that swept through much of the South, generating twisters in Alabama, heavy rains and flooding in North Carolina, and high winds, rain and hail in Tennessee. Coming a day before spring, it was not the nation's only dose of severe weather, as residents of Colorado and Wyoming shoveled themselves free from a winter's-end blizzard that brought as much as 7 feet of snow in some parts.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency, 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 a tornado cut a swath 22 miles long and half a mile wide near the city of Camilla, damaging or destroying 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 in February 2000 that left 21 people dead across a six-county region. Thirteen of the fatalities occurred near Camilla, population 5,669. Thursday's tornado struck within 300 yards of the previous one, said Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the state emergency management agency.

Mid-March marks the beginning of tornado season, though twisters 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 Mitchell County's command post.

The parallels to the 2000 tornado seemed especially keen to Ron Gilliard, who runs Mitchell County Hospital in Camilla. As with the prior tornado, Thursday's twister struck on the same day that the 23-bed hospital was being inspected as part of its accreditation.

In both cases, he said, the hospital was overwhelmed. On Thursday, doctors treated 50 patients out of 150 people who came to the hospital, some because they had been left without homes. Patients with the most serious injuries, including spinal and head injuries, were transferred to three 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 city of Sylvester.

Tompkins said a tornado destroyed three homes and damaged half a dozen others. Several barns were flattened or damaged, he said. The tornado stopped short of hitting Sylvester, which has 5,990 residents.

In the Rocky Mountains, life was returning to normal following a blizzard that dropped 7 feet of snow in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, claiming at least three lives. More than 2 feet of snow blanketed Denver, forcing schools and businesses to close and leaving many residents stranded in their homes.

Denver International Airport resumed operations Thursday morning to the relief of passengers who had waited since Tuesday to fly out.

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