Buford residents pick up pieces after tornado

At dawn on Wednesday, residents got a glimpse of their tornado-ravaged neighborhood in Gwinnett County, picked through the ruins and felt grateful to have survived such a turbulent storm. Jennifer Leroy was among them.

Standing in front of her damaged residence in the Kirkstone subdivision, the stay-at-home mom told of the pounding rain, a thundering noise and her house shaking.

From her kitchen, Leroy saw trees bent over outside in her backyard. She was upstairs when a window shattered, sending shards of glass flying toward her. She sought refuge in a closet beneath some stairs.

A confirmed tornado twisting at 130 mph was responsible for flattening a house, leaving several others uninhabitable and creating a quarter-mile of destruction in unincoporated Burord just north of the Mall of Georgia, officials said.

Surveying the worst damage left by Tuesday’s storm from the air and ground, State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine estimated the damage at $5 million, a figure he said could increase.

“A lot of people are going to be displaced,” Oxendine told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “A lot of these homes are not safe and are going to have to have major work done.”

The tornado was categorized as an EF2 on the enhanced Fujita Scale — with 0 through 5 used to rate tornado intensity — according to Steven Nelson, a National Weather Service scientist.

There are no tornado sirens in unincorporated areas of Gwinnett County.

The tornado demolished a house at 2483 Bancroft Way, leaving only the mailbox intact. It ripped off roofs, crushed garage doors and uprooted large trees. Once it swept through the Kirkstone subdivision, 56 homes were damaged and hundreds of residents were forced to find alternative shelter, Gwinnett County police officials said.

No injuries were reported from the twister itself, but the storm that battered much of metro Atlanta caused the death of a Conyers man. Matthew Mitchell, 54, was killed when a tree broke in half and fell on his Toyota Previa as he was driving on South Rockbridge Road near Stone Mountain.

Tami O’Connor, standing in front of her damaged 2,700-square-foot home, called the situation overwhelming but felt lucky to be alive.

O’Connor, her two children, mother and nephew were sitting in the living room when the storm hit. The room imploded, sending the family into the basement for safety. Everyone is now staying with her aunt’s family.

As O’Connor surveyed blown-out windows and torn-off gutters, an uprooted tree caught her attention.

“We loved this tree,” O’Connor said, pointing to a mangled mass of limbs. “It shaded our home.”

When objects started hitting Jamie Johnson’s house, she grabbed her daughter and retreated to an upstairs closet. Johnson next realized the school bus carrying her two young sons would arrive soon.

However, the bus turned around and returned to Freeman’s Mill Elementary School after driving into the escalating storm and waiting for 30 minutes. The ride was harrowing for students like fifth-grader Matthew Lucie. He heard a large piece of wood hit the bus.

“It was a huge thump,” the 11-year-old said. “Everyone stood out of their seats and were like, ‘What happened?’”

As the bus turned into the Kirkstone subdivision, Lucia and other students caught a glimpse of the devastation, which was unsettling.

“We saw the houses, the roofs, debris everywhere,” he said. “Some people started crying. We were scared. We were all in shock.”

Officials from the Red Cross and representatives from several Home Depot stores arrived in the subdivision to offer assistance early Wednesday. John Klemenc, store manager at the Home Depot in Alpharetta, said he and his colleagues came to the area to see if they could help. Representatives from Home Depot stores in Buford and Flowery Branch were determining what items, including tarps, they could donate to residents.

On Wednesday night, 15 houses were still without power in the subdivision because of structural damage, said Bonnie G. Jones, spokeswoman for Jackson EMC.

There was some good news in the tornado aftermath. Matthew and Reasey Lee, whose house was the most heavily damaged in the storm, returned early Wednesday and found their American Eskimo dog, Kirin, alive in the rubble.

“We went to what was left of the bedroom and heard him start whimpering,” Matthew Lee said. “A nice gentleman helped lift the wall and out he came.”

That helped take away some of the despair caused by the tornado.

“A house is a house,” Matthew Lee said.

“But Kirin cannot be replaced,” Reasey Lee chimed in.

Staff writer Mark Davis and photographer John Spink contributed to this article.