At least six reported dead after tornado hits in Georgia; more than 60 hurt

Thursday, March 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAMILLA, Ga. (AP) -- Tornadoes that one official likened to "a big lawnmower" swept across two counties in southwestern Georgia before dawn Thursday, killing at least six people and injuring at least 25 people.

Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency and planned to visit the area later in the day.

A man and his mother were killed and several other people hurt near rural Bridgeboro, in southern Worth County, said Sheriff Freddie Tompkins, who declined to release the victims' names.

Four others were killed in Mitchell County, said Donna Etchells, secretary at the sheriff's department. At least one person was still missing just after 9 a.m., she said, and an unknown number were injured.

The same area was struck by a tornado on Valentine's Day 2000, killing 11 people in Camilla. That twister was one of three that ripped through the region before dawn, killing 20 people in all.

Initial reports Thursday indicated that several tornadoes struck the area, said Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lisa Ray said.

In Worth County, the storm cut a swath about 10 miles long and up to 300 yards wide, Tompkins said.

"I was up in a helicopter this morning," Tompkins said. "It looked like a big lawnmower went through there."

Seven to nine homes were damaged, and three mobile homes were destroyed in Worth County. Tompkins said damage would be in the millions of dollars.

In Mitchell County, the twister carved a quarter-mile swath of damage south of Camilla, knocking down trees and destroying buildings.

"It's a mess, but not quite as bad as last time," said Camilla water department employee Joseph Willingham, who estimated about 25 homes were damaged and five destroyed.

Dontressia Williams' house -- built after the 2000 tornado on land that had been forested before then -- was one of those destroyed Thursday. She and her 2-year-old daughter survived by taking refuge in an interior room.

"I was scared," she said. "As I was going into that room, things were falling in, glass was breaking."

Some of the victims lived in mobile homes. Eric Moore's trailer was blown 100 yards away and crashed into a brick house. He survived the tornado by taking shelter in his mother's more-solid house across the street.

"I know I can't run from the Lord, but I think we'll be a lot safer if we get out of that mobile home" Moore said.

Four injured people were being treated at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, and more were expected, hospital officials said. Ten injured people were taken to a hospital in Mitchell County, and 11 were taken to a hospital in Thomasville.

Ray said the Emergency Management Agency was coordinating efforts between the state, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, police and volunteers.

"Probably a disaster resource center will be set up, so people can go in and have a one-stop place to see where assistance is available," Ray said.

In Decatur County, south of the worst damage, roads were flooded and power lines were down, said Chief Sheriff's Deputy Jim Morris.

One tornado touched down there, and Morris thought it might be the same one that eventually ravaged Mitchell and Worth counties. About four houses were damaged, but no serious injuries were reported.

In the Carolinas, up to 4 inches of rain fell overnight and flood warnings were issued. Tornado watches also were posted in some counties.

Officials in Iredell County, N.C., closed part of Interstate 40 when it flooded, and some trapped motorists had to be rescued from their vehicles. No injuries were reported.

"We're having a lot of flooding problems, and a number of creeks are rising," said Tracy Jackson, director of emergency services for the county. "We're making sure people are OK in low-lying areas."

On Wednesday, a storm packing high winds, heavy rain and hail killed a 75-year-old man in Tennessee. Ray Wollum died when his mobile home near Cookeville was leveled at about 11:30 a.m., said Mike Hellman, spokesman for the Cookeville-Putnam County Emergency Management Agency.