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188 houses damaged, 53 destroyed
Mother's Day storm wreaks havoc in Ellenwood

By Joel Hall

At about 1 a.m., on Sunday, Robbie Sims, of Ellenwood, was putting the finishing touches on a Mother's Day meal for her visiting mother. A cake, meat loaf, and several other items were left to cool on the kitchen counter.

At about 5 a.m., a fierce tornado touched down in the 3600 block of Stagecoach Pass, ripping open the wall which separated her kitchen from the outside. The food was scattered, but no one was injured.

The tornado that tore through her subdivision struck the northeast portion of Clayton County, damaging 188 homes in the Katherine Village, Rex Mill Terrace and Stagecoach subdivisions. As of Monday, 53 of those homes were rendered inhabitable, according to Alex Cohilas, Clayton County fire chief and director of Emergency Management.

Cohilas said 23 displaced families were being assisted by the American Red Cross, and 13 of those were still in need of shelter.

On Monday, electricity was out in the subdivisions, and many of the homes had water damage in addition to structural damage.

Ben Gallimore, a construction worker for one of several insurance companies accessing the damage in the Katherine Village subdivision, said this is the first time he has ever seen damage like this in the Ellenwood area.

"It went from the top to the bottom," said Gallimore, describing the destruction to one house near Vanity Joy's Lane. "The wind kind of knocked the top off the roof and gave it an open hole for it to rain in. The attic, the rafters ... everything is soaking wet."

High winds, rain, and hail left an uneven trail of destruction, sparing some houses and leaving others substantially destroyed. Across the street from where Gallimore was working, a house at 5400 Vanity Joy's Lane was an empty shell, gutted from the inside out.

On Sunday and Monday, Clayton County governmental departments mobilized in order to address safety concerns. Clayton County Police and Sheriff's departments patrolled the area, keeping out gawkers, potential looters, unauthorized contractors, and other opportunists.

The Transportation and Development Department cleared downed trees along Stagecoach Road, while the Fire Department neutralized potentially dangerous gas lines and downed power lines. Inmates from the Clayton County Jail cleared debris strewn across neighborhoods. Monday afternoon, The Home Depot stores in Forest Park, Ellenwood, and Morrow organized to help residents clear and discard debris from within, and around their properties.

While Cohilas said Emergency Management was prepared for the disaster, he said citizens must do more to prepare.

"There's this misconception that tornados won't hit urban areas," said Cohilas. "It's just a myth ... it doesn't just hit Oklahoma. Our citizenry is going to have to become more familiar with the possibility of this happening."

On Monday afternoon, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared Clayton County in a state of emergency. The declaration will put Clayton in line with a dozen other counties to receive assistance from the state.

"The state of Georgia expects local governments to take care of their own for 72 hours, and Clayton County has stepped up to the plate," said Clayton Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell. He praised the coordinated efforts of the county departments and volunteers helping in the relief.

District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton said she was pleased there were no deaths, or major injuries reported.

"I'm delighted ... everybody has been accounted for," said Singleton. "It could have been tragic." She related the story of a nine-year-old boy in the Stagecoach subdivision, who slept through the tornado with a piece of plaster on top of him after wind ripped off the wall of his bedroom.

Singleton praised Ellenwood residents for their positive attitudes, for checking on their neighbors, and for assisting their neighbors in the clean up.

Sims, who was asleep at the time of the tornado, said this was her first experience in a storm of that magnitude.

"I thought, not in Ellenwood," said Sims. "I thought somebody was breaking into the house at first, because the alarms started going off. Then the house got to rattling. I put my baby in the tub and waited for things to calm down."

Sims said she is thankful to be alive and planned to "clean up, rebuild, and make some new memories."

"This will be a Mother's Day that will always be remembered," said Sims. "Everything is gone, [however,] we have our health and our strength, and we can always cook another Sunday dinner."