By Ed Brock and Aisha I. Jefferson
Atlanta Motor Speedway and parts of Henry County looked like a war zone on Thursday after one or more small tornadoes from Tropical Storm Cindy tore across the county Wednesday night, leaving devastation and millions of dollars of damage in its wake. One official put the destruction at more than $75 million with another $40 to $50 million estimated at AMS. Miraculously, no one was killed in the storm in Henry County.
Clayton County was pelted with heavy rains measuring over four inches in some areas, along with high winds and power outages, but managed to escape the type of destruction that hit neighboring Henry County.
Airplanes, buildings, signs, trees and homes were damaged, with planes and some vehicles flipped over as winds tossed them about like toys.
According to Henry County Fire Chief Barry Jenkins, damage was sustained in three major areas across the county, including in Hampton, specifically the Atlanta Motor Speedway and Tara Field; the residential area behind the Wal-Mart Supercenter of Ga. Highway 20/81 near exit 218 off Interstate 75; and the Kelleytown community.
The bowl shape of the speedway helped the tornado form and it eventually remained on the ground for about four miles, also hitting the Tara Field airport in Hampton, the National Weather Service said. Four planes were overturned and two hangars were damaged at the airport.
Lans Rothfusz, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Peachtree City office, said a preliminary investigation indicated the tornado was a category F-2, which typically have wind speeds of 113 mph to 157 mph.
Jenkins estimated the total amount of damage to be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."
"This storm is probably the worst (one) I can remember to hit Henry County," Jenkins said, adding it's "very amazing" that no one was seriously hurt. Jenkins said Henry County Emergency Communications department received calls at a rate of 100 each minute Wednesday night.
"(We)don't expect anticipate to find more structures with major or total loss damage," said Jenkins, adding a preliminary damage count was finished, with about 90 percent of the property damaged being insured.
Meteorologist Chip West with the National Weather Service said there were two separate tornadoes out of the same storm, with a gap of damage between them.
According to West, the tornado developed and set down right at AMS, then moved north, crossing northeast of Ga. Highway 19/41 and dissipated in that area, just southeast of Lovejoy. West said a smaller tornado touched down in McDonough just east of Interstate 75 and went through a subdivision and caused minimal structural damage.
The storm caused at least $75 million in damages, including $5 million to homes, said Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who added the residential damage estimate likely will increase.
"It's a lot worse than we originally thought," he said. "Over in McDonough, there is just massive damage over here to these homes - entire neighborhoods. There are people's lives here who are just totally ripped up."
Emergency officials in Henry County said 229 homes had minor damage, such as mangled shingles or siding. Another 61 had moderate damage and 21 had major damage.
Meanwhile, four houses in addition to an apartment complex, a gas station and a nursing home were ruled complete losses.
At Tara Field, a hangar that was supposed to shelter expensive private jets was ripped asunder and the jets tumbled one over the other. But the four-seat Cherokee Piper belonging to Amy Cloud's husband stood unmoved and undamaged in its outdoor parking space near the runway.
"All that happened to us is our cover got shredded," said Cloud, who lives in Griffin. "These are the ones you think are so vulnerable."
While elevated Sunoco signs went untouched at AMS, it didn't shadow a majority of damage was felt at the track. The storm tore away pieces of its condominiums, blew out windows, blasted apart the suites its adjacent side and tossed racing trailers and small sheds around like toys. It plastered pieces of insulation from the buildings against fences and buildings, toppled a massive score display tower and piled barrels and other debris along Turn 1.
Even the first two letters of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt's last name, prominently displayed on one of five grandstands, were erased from the walls of the massive track that twice a year attracts hundreds of fans for NASCAR events, in addition to weekly local racing.
But those expecting to go to the weekly Thursday Thunder summer racing series woke up found the remaining five weeks of racing action in jeopardy. Officials feel it could be a struggle to even get the track in shape for the big race in October.
Spectators and officials alike drove around the outside and inside of the track, taking pictures of the damage. Ed Clark, the track's president and general manager, said they were still trying to assess the damage and prioritize what needed to be done. He had yet to estimate when the track might reopen.
"We don't even have a gate to come through and get to the grandstands," Clark said.
Clark estimated the cost of the damage at between $25 and $40 million. Operations personnel from the track's corporate offices in Charlotte, N.C., were coming down to help with the clean up.
Legends series driver Chris Dilbeck of Hampton came by the track again on Thursday to survey the damage for the first time in the daylight after initially passing by late Wednesday after the storm passed through.
"They said no tornado touched down, but this had to be a tornado," Dilbeck said. "There are race car trailers in the infield that were thrown all the way across the infield."
Some were in condo units at the time the storm hit according to AMS Promotions and Events Coordinator Trey Sanders, but nobody was hurt. Marcy Scott, director of marketing and promotions for the track, who lives in one of the condos, was in Atlanta when the damage was done, but was worried about her cats, Emma and Isabelle.
"I didn't care about my things, I just wanted my pets to be OK," Scott said.
Henry County firefighters rescued the cats, who were found hiding under the furniture. Other than a blown out window in the bedroom, Scott's unit didn't receive any other major damage. Still, she's already concerned that Hurricane Dennis, churning through the Caribbean, might send more severe weather into Georgia next week.
"If lightning doesn't strike twice. I'm hoping mother nature will be merciful," Scott said.
Outside of AMS, other families were directly put in danger by tornadoes as well.
When the Braswell family returned to their McDonough home Wednesday night, they never could have imagined the catastrophe that lay ahead of them. When they arrived, a neighbor called, warning the family to go into their basement.
"As soon as we got in the basement we felt the house shaking," Timothy Braswell Jr., 14, said.
After emerging, the family went upstairs to survey the damage, and were surprised to see the night sky where their roof used to be, having been ripped off by an apparent funnel cloud.
"We were in the basement and it just like took our roof," Timothy said. "(The roof is) like all down the road in everybody's backyard."
Aside from having the roof completely ripped off their five-bedroom, brick home, Timothy's mother, Jennifer Braswell, said the house also sustained a lot of water damage and is not livable, forcing the family of six to stay with a neighbor Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Many other homes in the Braswell's Cotton Creek subdivision endured major damage, where blue tarp covered many of the roofs in the neighborhood.
But the homes in the Cotton Creek Subdivision, which is off Airline Road near Kelleytown, were not the only structures that endured damage in Henry County.
Daily intern Matt Hooper and the Associated Press contributed to this story.