A 160-mph tornado struck parts of Bartow and Gordon counties Wednesday, the National Weather Service confirmed Thursday.
The tornado was 400 yards wide and traveled along a 24.5-mile path from Bartow to Gordon, according to Channel 2 Action News meteorologist David Chandley, citing NWS findings. “This is only the fourth EF 3 storm in Georgia in January since 1950,” Chandley said. “The last one was in 2006.”
Adairsville in Bartow and Farmville in Gordon were hardest hit, but NWS survey teams were in other parts of northwest Georgia trying to determine whether tornadoes hit other heavily damaged areas. Other twisters were reported, but not confirmed, in Paulding County, near Pine Mountain, near Ft. Benning in Columbus, and in Houston County in middle Georgia, Chandley said.
The storms were powerful and deadly, killing one man and injuring at least a dozen others in less than five minutes.
Operations in Gordon and Bartow on Thursday shifted from rescue and recovery to assessing just how much damage was done.
Assessing the damage in Gordon
In Gordon, the Stone Mill subdivision in Sonoraville was a scene of mass destruction Thursday afternoon, with houses blown off foundations, some smashed to nothing.
Joyce Jones was home alone and says when the storm approached, she went to her late son’s room. He died in November 2011 at age 13.
“It’s a security thing,” Jones said, wiping away tears. “God told me to get into a hallway closet.” She did. When she came out, she couldn’t believe what she saw.
“When I came out of the closet, I go running and screaming for help. I couldn’t get out,” Jones said.
She wasn’t able initially to open the doors to get out, but a police officer helped her after what seemed like forever.
“I was in shock. Oh my God,” Jones said. “I know it’s material things, but my son played in this house.”
On Nov. 28, 2011, Jones lost her son Tristan to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which he contracted after receiving a bone marrow transplant. Another son, a Marine, was seriously injured serving in Afghanistan.
Thursday afternoon, friends gathered outside what was left of the family’s home, ready to help, but not sure where to start.
The home was moved 15 feet off it’s foundation, coming to rest on top of Jones’ demolished car, which slid out of its parking spot in the garage. The house sat tilted at an angle Thursday afternoon. Jones stepped through piles of broken glass while looking through what remained.
Many items inside were still intact, as though nothing had happened. The family was making plans to find boxes and buy large trash bags, hoping there was time to salvage belongings before the house potentially fell again.
Kim Dant, a fourth-grade teacher at Sonoraville Elementary School in Calhoun, which is also in Gordon County, said she comforted worried children for nearly two hours Wednesday.
“I will never let anything happen to you guys,” she told them.
One child asked if they were allowed to pray. Another wanted to know if she would go to Heaven.
When it was time for dismissal, teachers loaded students on buses like any other day. “We put all the kids on buses and 30 minutes later they came back because their houses were gone,” Dant said.
Dant’s house sustained only minor damage, but some of her students were not as lucky.
Friday will be a day off again for Gordon students. “You can’t learn and think about not having a house to go home to,” she said.
Picking up the pieces in Adairsville
Destruction lined both sides of U.S. 41 in Adairsville, where dozens of homes and businesses sustained moderate to major damage after the Wednesday morning storms. The Adairsville Supermarket, a 55,000-square foot staple in the town since 1958, was reduced to a massive pile of rubble. A red bubble gum machine was left standing late Wednesday, but not much else.
“It’s bad - really rough,” store owner Dilip Patel said as he stood looking at the damage.
Patel, who bought the store in 2003, said only a few customers were inside when the storm hit, and he others escaped unscathed. Had it been later in the day, shortly before dinner time, there would have been several more customers inside, Patel said.
Across the street from Patel’s store, the Relax Inn was also a nearly-flattened pile of rubble. Most of the roof was gone.
“It was like you just opened it up with a can opener. You could just see everything,” said Trish Cooper, who was temporarily living at the hotel with her husband, Phillip.
The Coopers spent Wednesday night at a Red Cross shelter set up at a nearby gymnasium. Neither was physically injured by the storm but remained very shaken and reflective hours later. When the storm hit, Phillip Cooper was working at the Daeki plant, a welding job he recently landed and enjoyed.
Since the plant was destroyed, Cooper said he wasn’t sure if he would have a job at all. He said he hoped transferring to another of the company’s plants was possible.
Still the couple was grateful and said their situation could be worse. One street behind where the Relax Inn once stood, 51-year-old Anthony Raines was crushed to death by a tree that fell on top of his mobile home.
“You can rebuild a building,” Trish Cooper said. “You can’t rebuild a life.”
— Please return for updates throughout the day.
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