Powerful Tornado Damages Downtown Atlanta
By SHAILA DEWAN and BRENDA GOODMAN
ATLANTA — A powerful tornado scored a direct hit on the commercial center of downtown Atlanta on Friday night, blowing windows out of dozens of high-rise buildings, tossing trees and cars, and severely damaging many of the city’s landmarks, including the CNN Center, the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, Grady Memorial Hospital and Centennial Olympic Park.
At least 27 people were injured and transported to local hospitals, said Capt. Bill May of Atlanta’s Fire Rescue Department, most with cuts and bruises from flying glass and debris.
The weather service said the tornado’s winds reached 130 miles an hour and in only 20 minutes cut a path six miles long and 200 yards wide through the downtown area. There was considerable damage to the area’s older trees, which was made worse by the region’s long drought, weather officials said.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin declared a state of emergency in the city at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, a designation needed to make the city eligible for federal recovery money.
No fatalities had been reported by Saturday morning, though crews were still combing through a condominium building in the southeastern part of the city where four floors had fallen on each other, making search and rescue operations difficult and dangerous.
The severity of the sudden storm surprised forecasters, who broke into prime-time programming Friday night around 9:40 p.m. to report that possible tornadoes could be heading for the downtown area. Thousands of people had gathered in the sports and convention area for two basketball games and a dental convention.
The twister brought what was supposed to be a busy Saturday to a near-standstill. The convention was canceled, as was the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Atlanta Home Show, both scheduled for Saturday. The Southeastern Conference basketball playoffs were moved to a smaller stadium open to players and their families only.
The storm damaged the roof of the CNN Center, sucking the furniture out of the lobby and allowing storm water to pour into the newsroom. CNN said one of its computers had been sucked through a broken window and that dust, glass and water were scattered around the building, though the network stayed on the air to report on the city’s damage.
The storm passed right through the heart of the city, wreaking havoc on landmarks large and small. It blew the windows out of Ted Turner’s restaurant, called Ted’s Montana Grill, and the Tabernacle, a popular concert venue. Skyscrapers were pocked with broken windows and billboards were twisted into skeletal scaffolds. Debris and glass carpeted the usually busy streets, making them impassible.
Brenton Young, a dentist from Shelby, N.C., had just put his drink order in at Thrive, a chic downtown restaurant, when street-level windows started exploding. “People were jumping up and screaming,” Mr. Young said. “We didn’t know if a car had hit the building or what had happened. People were hitting the floor. People were running for the center. It was a chaotic three seconds.”
Cheryl Denton, also in town for the convention, said she was in her hotel when the storm hit. “It just came up all of a sudden,” she said. “We looked out the window and stuff started swirling, and it was there and gone that quick.”
Her friend Dwayne Hawkins added, “It was on the news and it hit 15 minutes later.”
At a 2 a.m. news conference Saturday, Kelvin J. Cochran, the fire and rescue chief, said it would take 24 to 36 hours to complete the search and rescue operation.
One of the 11 people who were taken to Grady Hospital had life-threatening injuries, a spokeswoman for the hospital said, but by Saturday morning the condition of that victim had been upgraded to stable. The 10 others had been treated and released.
A few blocks away, where the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball playoffs were under way, players from both teams froze, mouths gaping on the court, when part of the fabric roof was torn away by the force of the storm, allowing a sudden gush of wind to blow through the Georgia Dome. Catwalks at the top of the dome swayed and bits of insulation rained down on players and fans during overtime of the Mississippi State-Alabama game, halting play and sending spectators scrambling for the exits.
After a 65-minute delay to sweep the court and make sure the facility was sound, the game resumed. (Mississippi beat Alabama, 69-67.)
Cory Reavis, a 32-year-old firefighter who lives in the loft building where several floors collapsed, said that most of the damage had occurred in a part of the complex that was under renovation and thus not occupied. But Mr. Reavis said he had helped rescue one man in another part of the complex.
“He was sleeping and the roof collapsed on top of him,” he said. Mr. Reavis said the man’s injuries were not serious.
Mr. Reavis and his girlfriend were in his loft when the storm passed. “We thought it was the Marta train, because you can hear the Marta from our house,” he said, referring to the local subway system. He added that the noise grew louder and louder until it seemed to shake the building. “Three minutes later, it was over.”
Laurie Kimbrell, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta chapter of the American Red Cross, said about 80 people had been transported to two shelters for the night. Fifty of those were elderly residents from the Antoine Graves high-rise apartments who were evacuated by Marta buses after the tornado damaged their building.
After passing through downtown, the storm continued east, passing the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District before hitting and devastating a large loft complex, the Stacks at Fulton Cotton Mill. The largely residential neighborhood behind it, known as Cabbagetown, was littered with tree trunks, smashed cars, and debris. Neighbors compared notes, talking about riding out the storm in closets.
Nearby, two men stood in a parking lot littered with cinder blocks that had once formed the walls of a two-story warehouse full of auto parts. “This don’t happen too often,” said Ruben Thorpe, 50, a delivery man for the warehouse owners, the Southeastern Auto Company. “A lot of bad weather, it goes around us. And for this to happen right here, it’s shocking.”
Lisa Janek, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said it was clear that the city was going to take a while to clean up the widespread damage.
“There’s a significant amount of debris still in the roads,” Ms. Janek said. “And another round of severe weather is on the way.”
Ms. Janek said they were scrambling to get as much as they could done before another expected round of thunderstorms, damaging winds and possible tornadoes hit in the early afternoon.
A team of meteorologists from the National Weather Service that had surveyed the downtown damage said that the chaos had definitely been caused by a tornado, said Ron Trumbla, public affairs officer for the Southern region of the weather service. “They’re still working on the strength,” Mr. Trumbla said.
A spokeswoman for Georgia Power said that as of midday Saturday, some 15,000 customers were still without electrical power.