North Georgia takes stock after Monday storm brings tornado, havoc

Cal Welk with Champion Construction surveys damage on Jumpers Trail on Tuesday after a powerful storm system swept through North Georgia Monday, sending trees into roads, damaging homes and businesses, knocking out power to thousands. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Cal Welk with Champion Construction surveys damage on Jumpers Trail on Tuesday after a powerful storm system swept through North Georgia Monday, sending trees into roads, damaging homes and businesses, knocking out power to thousands. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Anthony Chappell was sleeping soundly Monday night when his daughter woke him up scared that someone was downstairs beating a bat hard against the outside wall.

The sound turned out not to be a Louisville Slugger, but baseball-sized hail from a tornado that was pounding the five-bedroom home in their south Fulton County’s Fairburn neighborhood. The clamor was joined by howling wind, shutters banging fiercely and eventually the telltale sign of a tornado — the sound of a train.

“That’s when I said, ‘We need to get downstairs,’” said Chappell, who took shelter in a first-floor bathroom with his daughter and wife Bernice. “It only lasted 20 seconds, but it was intense.”

The National Weather Service on Tuesday confirmed that the line of storms that wreaked havoc on metro Atlanta and parts of North Georgia in the late evening hours Monday — including more than 174 severe weather reports of large hail — included a tornado in the Chestnut Ridge subdivision in Fairburn. The agency late Tuesday confirmed two other tornadoes touched down in Haralson County.

While some in metro Atlanta woke up Tuesday to a loss of power or downed trees, Chestnut residents were greeted with front porches ripped from foundations, roofs blown into pieces and exterior walls torn asunder and scattered in backyards like kindling.

“We didn’t know the extent of the damage until we got out today and could see it in the light of day,” said Erin Davis, who also huddled in a first-floor bathroom with her husband and their two sons at the height of the tornado. “The good news is we are all safe.”

The trail of thunderstorms, which picked up velocity and strength around 10 p.m. Monday, left a path of destruction throughout North Georgia. Trees fell on 25 homes in Haralson County, including five in a trailer park, according to fire officials there, while another Haralson County home caught on fire when a family burned a candle for light.

Elsewhere an eight-unit apartment in the 7200 block of Tara Boulevard caught fire in Clayton County during the downpour while lightning caused two Gwinnett house fires. A tree crashed into a home on Glenroy Place in Cobb County.

No one was killed in the storms, but a woman and her father were injured after a tree fell on their home in Buchanan in Haralson County. The father was in critical condition in a Haralson hospital early Tuesday.

Thousands were without power from Fulton to Henry counties.

“The electric membership cooperatives were hit hard as severe weather, and possible tornadoes, pounded many parts of Georgia last night, interrupting power to 13,000 customers, primarily in the west part of the state,” Georgia EMC spokeswoman Terri Statham said.

The tornado's impact was widespread in South Fulton's Chestnut Ridge. The damage ranged from the cosmetic — shutters snapped in half, mangled gutters and missing roof tiles — to the more serious, including blown-out windows, siding ripped from entire walls and hollowed-out second floors.

Residents walked around Tuesday comparing notes on damage, checking to make sure their neighbors had homeowner’s insurance and a place to stay if they didn’t. While dazed from the enormity of what happened and the challenge of what lies ahead, they were warm and greeted the strangers who descended on the community — insurance adjusters, construction crews, emergency officials and reporters — with kindness.

“This is the kind of neighborhood we have,” Davis said, adding that as she and her family huddled in the bathroom after the tornado had passed she could hear the Chappells, her next-door neighbors, outside her home shouting to see if they were OK.

But the events of just 12 hours earlier were still fresh on everyone’s mind.

April Norman looked at her home in astonishment. She moved out of the house in 2015 after the death of her son, but held onto it as a rental property. She had called her renter late Monday and advised her and her family to take cover just moments before the tornado tore into the house, ripping out the exterior walls of two bedrooms where the renter’s children were just moments before.

“If they hadn’t moved, they would have been gone,” Norman said, looking in disbelief at the only remnant that suggested the two rooms were there — a wall that separated them. “This is going to be a long process.”

Gary and Jennifer Hillsman sat in chairs below their open garage door and surveyed the activity as neighbors huddled in groups to discuss their damage. The storm ripped up their fence, tore a hole in their roof and left water leaking into their home. But after walking around the neighborhood, they feel lucky.

“We were blessed because we only got some damage,” said Gary Hillsman, who added that the couple have lived in their Estonia Drive home for 14 years. “After seeing my neighbors’ homes, it could have been worse.”

But he still hears the sound of the storm in his mind.

“You could hear the shingles going pop, pop, pop, pop,” Gary Hillsman said. “It was an experience.”

Justin Mitchell, a first-time homebuyer, had just moved into his home on Jodhpur Way on Sunday. A deputy with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department, he was at work when the tornado hit.

“I was devastated,” he said when he learned about the tornado’s impact. “I only slept in my house one night. I was still getting things turned on, that’s how new this was. The only furniture I really have is in the bedroom, which now has a hole in the roof. The water started dripping in there through the ceiling fan.”

Demetria Bethea sat outside the twisted garage of a house under construction on Jumpers Trail and wondered what the home's buyers would think. The first floor of the 2,400-square-foot house had just been framed a week earlier and Bethea hoped they wouldn't get cold feet because of what happened.

“It’s an act of God and I hope they don’t pull into the neighborhood and get afraid,” said Bethea, a Realtor, adding that another house her firm is selling just 100 feet away only suffered a broken window, a testament to its construction.

Not far away on the outskirts of the neighborhood, Teri Stewart picked up branches that were scattered throughout her yard at the corner of Jones Road and Campbellton Fairburn Road. Her hands were muddy from the countless twigs that covered the yard like sand as she grabbed the bigger pieces with agility.

Other than the trees that fell on power lines just steps away from her back door, her home was fine, she said. While she didn't hear the effects of the tornado, the constant flash of lightning kept her up during the destructive downpour.

After she stepped outside and saw the devastation, only one thing came to her mind: “I thought, ‘My Lord, what have I just missed.’”

Staff writers Lauren Foreman and John Spink contributed to this report.

By the numbers

13,000: customers, primarily in the western part of the state, who lost power.

174: severe weather reports of large hail.

1: the number of nights Clayton county Sheriff's Deputy Justin Mitchell, a first-time homebuyer, had spent in his brand new house before the storm damaged it while he was at work. "I was still getting things turned on, that's how new this was. The only furniture I really have is in the bedroom, which now has a hole in the roof…"