Two deaths, dozens of injuries reported

Valerie Joslin was already huddled in the closet when her husband dashed in, threw himself on top of her and slammed the door.

Almost immediately, there was a roar. The walls around them snapped and popped. The roof flew off, snatched up and away by the storm.

The sound was unmistakable.

“Everybody says, you know, it’s just a house and just stuff and you can replace that. And that’s true. That’s very true,” Joslin said Friday, standing teary-eyed outside her decimated LaGrange home of 20 years.

“It’s your life, though. It’s your life.”

Severe storms ripped through much of metro Atlanta and the northern half of the state late Thursday afternoon, killing at least two people — including a 5-year-old Butts County boy and a Department of Transportation worker — and injuring dozens more.

Explore5-year-old dead in Butts County after tree crushes car during storm

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

At least seven radar-confirmed tornadoes touched down throughout the state, according to the National Weather Service. One caused extensive damage in Spalding County, about 40 miles south of Atlanta, knocking down trees, tearing apart a Hobby Lobby in Griffin and damaging at least one local school.

The city of Griffin had a curfew overnight. The county 911 system was overloaded with calls. About 130 people were taking refuge in a Spalding shelter Friday, said James Stallings, the director of Georgia’s emergency agency.

“We’ve got families that seek shelter underneath their home and then the homes crumbled around them. So we had rescue teams out there trying to dig homes off of folks,” Stallings said. “We’ve got a lot of injuries.”

Tornadoes also touched down further west in Troup and Meriwether counties, not far from the Alabama border. About 50 people were in shelters there, state officials said.

Joslin’s LaGrange subdivision and another adjoining one — Lexington Park and Baldwin Park, respectively — were an epicenter for damage.

On approach from the interstate Friday, the smell of pine wafted from trees snapped in half or uprooted altogether. At one roadside home, a massive front overhang sat broken on the front porch below.

Inside the subdivisions, dozens of homes were damaged. Tow-behind trailers were flipped and tossed, fences mangled or unwillingly relocated. A fishing boat sat at an angle in one side yard, largely undamaged but clearly not in the place it’d been parked.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

More than a few houses were missing their roofs or second stories entirely, and a flurry of roofers, insurance adjusters and emergency personnel filled the streets.

That white stuff everywhere, plastered to cars and lawns and just about everything else? Not snow or frost but insulation ripped from homes, then shredded and strewn in the wind and rain.

The Fields’ home on Boston Drive still had its roof but not a whole lot remained underneath. The fence gone, the air conditioning unit’s whereabouts unclear.

“It’s a done deal,” Kim Fields said Friday morning, jumping at the sight of a reporter who she had hoped was actually someone from the insurance company. “It’s gone.”

Around the corner and up a hill, roofer Kyle Mrozik and resident Crystal Luke surveyed the damage at the latter’s home. Water everywhere and shattered glass.

Mrozik had been on the scene right when the tornado hit. He helped one of Luke’s senior neighbors out of his home.

Most of the homes in the subdivision are basement-less. Luke had ridden out the storm in a closet.

“I thought my house was gonna take off,” she said. “And I didn’t have my ruby slippers.”

Power and gas were disconnected in the area and likely would remain so for a few days, said LaGrange City Councilman Leon Childs, who lives in the area. Residents were staying in hotels, shelters or with loved ones.

Credit: John Spink /John Spink

Credit: John Spink /John Spink

‘I need your help now’

Miraculously, no one was injured or killed in LaGrange.

But Gov. Brian Kemp said in a Friday morning press conference that two deaths reported elsewhere in the state were due to the storms, which brought heavy rain and strong winds even to areas not affected by tornadoes.

In Butts County, about an hour southeast of Atlanta, the coroner confirmed that a 5-year-old died after the car he was traveling in was hit by a falling tree. Another passenger was in critical condition.

Tony West, a young roofer and military veteran trying to make it home in the storm himself, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he stopped at the accident scene after he saw an ambulance and fire truck.

“There were people with chainsaws, firefighters, paramedics,” West said. “And a firefighter ran up to me and said, ‘I need your help now.’”

West helped with extrication efforts, but the car was flattened. The child was already dead.

In a press conference, Kemp said a state DOT worker responding to storm damage was also killed Thursday. DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry later identified the man as Walker County highway maintenance foreman Sean Kornacki.

As emergency crews continued to work to remove debris and restore power to thousands of customers Friday, Kemp, Stallings and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones were surveying damage via helicopter.

The governor said he decided to view the damage from the air so recovery efforts on the ground wouldn’t be disrupted and urged residents to steer clear of emergency workers.

In accordance with the state of emergency declared late Thursday, Kemp said “all available state resources” were going toward supporting responders.

Stallings, the emergency management director, urged residents to be vigilant about falling debris and other still-unsafe conditions.

“Anything that’s loose will still fall,” Stallings said, adding: “Be patient with us. We’re doing the best we can in the circumstances we are in.”

Back in LaGrange and the Baldwin Park subdivision, a group of teachers from nearby Clearview Elementary School were going door-to-door and helping any way they could.

Many of them had been at the school late into Thursday night, riding out the storm with students and parents and anyone else in the area who needed shelter as the worst hit.

The school was, somehow, spared by the tornado but remained closed Friday. The teachers thought they could be “most helpful” out in the community, where many of their students live.

“Our school is a high poverty school,” said Dominique Tucker. “So we’ve always done the extra for our students. But now it’s like you gotta do the extra times 10.”

By mid-morning, the group was helping Joslin and her husband start cleaning up — and make sense of the destruction.

“I feel pretty dazed,” Joslin said. “I’ve never been homeless before.”

—Staff writers David Aaro, Greg Bluestein and Henri Hollis contributed to this article.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer