Photo by Brandon Stooksbury,Central Georgia EMC
A fallen tree obscures the way as automobiles attempt to traverse a Spalding County road that was laced with fallen power lines Thursday.
By Curt Yeomans
Henry County was skirted by a tornado that struck in Spalding County late Wednesday night, but officials in Clayton and Henry said local residents were mostly spared the worst of what proved to be a deadly storm system.
The rapidly moving system smashed its way across the Southeast, from Mississippi to Virginia, this week. It generated an estimated 164 tornadoes, and caused at least 280 deaths across the region, according to the Associated Press.
The storm did hit close to home for Clayton and Henry residents, as weather officials confirmed a tornado did touch down in nearby Spalding County, where two people died as a result of the storm. The tornado, rated a "3" on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, scoured the county's landscape with wind speeds upwards of 140 miles per hour.
Spalding County Fire Chief Kenny West, the county's Emergency Management Agency director, said Wednesday's event is a reminder for citizens to "practice severe weather safety, and be alert." The fire chief described a 20-mile trail of destruction that stretched from Meriwether County, across Ga. Highway 16 in Spalding County, into unincorporated southern Henry County, just north of Sunny Side.
"This can happen so fast, that you don't have time to deal with it, when it happens," said West.
Five teams of National Weather Service meteorologists went out into North Georgia, and Central Georgia, early Thursday morning to survey storm damage, as Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in 16 Georgia counties, including Spalding.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Alex Gibbs said Wednesday's fast-moving supercell thunderstorms were energized remnants of last weekend's storms in the Midwest. "We had this stationary front that set across the U.S.," he said. "The front stalled out in the eastern and central states. Another upper level impulse came through Wednesday.
"We see a lot of that in the Great Plains," Gibbs added. "It's not very common here, but it's not unheard of."
Weather service radar spotted three areas of rotating winds in parts of Henry and Spalding counties, according to Gibbs. "There have been corresponding reports of damage in some of those areas," said Gibbs, noting reports from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and other emergency management officials in Spalding County. Gibbs said the radar indicated the most powerful winds were clocked along the same path of reported damage through Spalding County.
Ken Davis, public affairs director for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), said tornado warnings had been issued for McDonough on Wednesday night. He acknowledged that GEMA was still gathering data on the damage, if any, that was caused in Henry or Clayton counties.
Officials in the two counties let out sighs of relief on Thursday, however, as they reported the counties suffered very little damage from the storm. Police spokespersons in both counties said they were unaware of any reports of injuries or fatalities caused by the storm.
Clayton County Transportation and Development Director Jeff Metarko said his department got only three calls about trees down in roads in the county. County Spokesperson Jamie Carlington she had not been notified of any damage the storm did to county buildings and offices.
Similarly, Clayton County Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson said no school buildings, or other properties of the district, were damaged. He said school buses were out, picking up students at their normal times on Thursday morning. "We were very fortunate," he said.
Operations and facilities at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in the northwest corner of Clayton County, were also spared the wrath of the storm, according to airport spokesman, John Kennedy. He said the airport was not damaged by the weather, and there were only "minor [flight] delays and a handful of cancellations."
Delta Spokesman Anthony Black said the Atlanta-based airline canceled 50 flights on Wednesday night, and worked affected passengers onto other flights. The airline's operations had returned to "normal" by midday on Thursday, he added.
Henry County Emergency Management Director Don Ash said the local Emergency Operations Center was activated, in anticipation of the storm's arrival locally. However, no such response was necessary in the area.
"We haven't really had any significant storm damage," he said. "We had some trees down, and we had some power lines down. Crews are working to restore them, but we haven't had any structural damage that I'm aware of."
Ash added that no fatalities were reported in Henry, and no areas in the county were flooded.
With little damage in either county, firefighters from Henry and Clayton headed out to other parts of the state Thursday, to assist with recovery efforts, according to officials in both counties.
Henry County firefighters were sent to assist survivor recovery efforts, and offer medical assistance, to those in Spalding County. A team of five Clayton County firefighters have gone to Catoosa County, in north Georgia, which was devastated by another tornado.
Like Spalding, Catoosa County was among the communities where Deal has declared a state of emergency. "In times like these, we really reach out to our neighboring communities and offer whatever assistance we can," explained Brad Johnson, Henry County Fire Division Chief of Operations. "We know it isn't a one-way street ... One day, the situation may be reversed, and at that time, we know our neighbors will come to our aid, just as we are always ready to come to theirs."
Clayton fire spokeswoman, Jacque Feilke, said five members of the local Georgia Search and Rescue team are in Catoosa County where a tornado hit about 8:30 p.m., Wednesday. Officials report at least seven deaths, with many residents still unaccounted for. "We were very blessed and fortunate to not get any damage here," she said. "But we sent a team to Catoosa to see if they can help with collapses."
Funding through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Domestic Preparedness, three Georgia Search and Rescue teams were established after the 9-11 terrorist strike. Clayton is part of the metro team, and responds to disasters in which people are trapped.
As a result of power failures caused by the storm, local power companies spent Thursday sending crews out across metro Atlanta. Georgia Power reported minimal impact in Henry and Clayton counties, compared to other suburban and rural counties in north and central Georgia.
The electric utility reported 72,000 power outages statewide at the peak of the storms, with 27,000 outages in metro Atlanta. It reported about 150 customers remained without power in Henry County, and 130 were without power in Clayton County, as of midday Thursday.
Central Georgia Electric Membership Corporation Spokesperson Christy Chewning said the electric utility cooperative responded to 5,593 power outages in its 14-county service area, which includes Henry, Clayton, and Spalding counties. She said 3,519 of those outages were reported in the Zetella, Ga., area along Ga. Highway 16, in Spalding County.
"We've got poles down everywhere," Chewning said. "We have brought in extra crews from outside the co-op that are helping us right now."
Staff writers Johnny Jackson, Kathy Jefcoats and Jason Smith contributed to this article.