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EF-1 Tornadoes

Wreak Havoc
EF-1 Tornadoes
Laine Ledford, two year old son of Jesse and Sara Ledford of Higgston, surveys the damage left by Thursday’s tornadoes. Higgston, Alamo, South Toombs and the City of Vidalia were the hardest hit areas.
EF-1 Tornadoes
Laine Ledford, two year old son of Jesse and Sara Ledford of Higgston, surveys the damage left by Thursday’s tornadoes. Higgston, Alamo, South Toombs and the City of Vidalia were the hardest hit areas.

Disaster erupted on Thursday afternoon, as two EF-1 tornadoes ripped through Wheeler, Montgomery, and Toombs Counties. Utility Clerk Dana Burkhalter was at her desk at Alamo’s City Hall shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, April 9, when she received a severe weather warning by text. She called City Manager Jeff Floyd, who was a few blocks away at a community meeting. “I asked him if this was real and he said yes, and to go to the break room to hunker down,” she said. The interior room is at the center of the structure, has no windows, and is deemed the continued from page

safest place to shelter. Burkhalter, who was the only person inside City Hall at the time, had just enough time to look out of the front door to see the skies darkening. She heard a rumble and caught a glimpse of a piece of metal roofing flying through the air. “It was rotating in a circular motion. It was something I had only seen in movies and I knew what it was.”

Only minutes before, Burkhalter left the community meeting where Floyd was still on site helping to tidy up. When he arrived a short time later at what appeared to be the storm’s epicenter, Floyd was confronted with chaos. A block of buildings along Railroad Avenue and owned by the City had been slammed hard by what the National Weather Service later confirmed was a low-level EF-1 tornado packing winds of up to 90 miles per hour. Power lines had been snapped, brick and cinder block walls had been blown out and roofing peeled off of two structures. Chain link fencing around a former hardware store was twisted when heavy rubber matting picked up by high winds was thrown against it.

Across town, limbs were down and debris scattered over a wide area. A tree behind the downtown office of Attorney Russell Clark was shredded, but amazingly, the buildings near the tree seemed to be intact, as though the winds hopped right over them. The front window of a garage on U.S. Highway 280 and across from the hardware store was blown out, but workers inside escaped injury. One city resident reported that a tree had fallen across a vehicle parked in her yard.

The National Weather Service sent a surveyor to Alamo to inspect the damage and to confirm that the event was in fact caused by a tornado. The storm that rolled into Alamo had traveled on a continuous path from adjacent Dodge County, where it caused substantial damage. Tornados are assigned to one of six categories (EF-0 to EF5), depending on the damage on the ground. The EF scale is based on 28 damage indicators.

The storm was part of a dangerous weather system that cut a wide swath across the South last week. In Wheeler County, the tornado seemed to take a random path, causing the most concentrated damage in Alamo, but inflicting widespread consequences — mostly in the form of downed trees and power lines — elsewhere in the county. Near Wheeler County’s other municipality of Glenwood on Georgia Highway 19, the entire front porch of a church was blown away.

Wheeler County Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Adams said it could have been much worse. “We dodged a bullet. Thank goodness, none of the buildings that were heavily damaged were occupied.” The area where the storm blew in is at the center of the county seat where the courthouse, county jail, and other government buildings, as well as businesses and private residences, are located. Other than the Wheeler Correctional Facility, which houses over 2,500 inmates and is about a halfmile away but inside the city limits, on a weekday downtown Alamo is the most densely populated area of the county.

Adams, who was traveling a county dirt road in the northern section of the county near the time the storm struck Alamo, said he was closely monitoring weather alerts. Tornadic activity was reported in adjacent Dodge County around 12:45 p.m. and the storm had Wheeler County in its sites. Adams said the weather worsened quickly with hard rain and hail pelting his truck, and at one point, it became impossible to drive because of the lack of visibility. After the storm passed, he immediately began to get damage reports, and he and other first responders started clearing trees and limbs from roads. This work continued until almost midnight.

Adams said that while he does not dispute the Weather Service’s assessment that what caused the destruction was a tornado, what he observed in Wheeler County was damage from sporadic, straight line winds erupting from the storm, rather than a path of rotating winds that traveled along the ground over a widespread area, as is characteristic of a tornado that touches down. “I definitely think we had circulation over Wheeler County, and that the same storm touched down in Montgomery and really slammed Vidalia,” he said.

During the sudden storm, Wheeler County students were still on campus and were taken into the hallways of the new, twostory school building as a precaution, said Superintendent Suzanne Couey. Lights went out briefly until the school’s generator kicked in. Buses were later able to safely deliver students to their homes on Thursday afternoon. The school continued normal operations on Friday, while other area schools were closed due to the storm damage.

Traveling along U.S. Highway 280, which runs through Alamo and Glenwood, the route of the storm that moved toward Montgomery and Toombs Counties was evident with debris deposited in ditches and uprooted or damaged trees spread across the countryside. Since the county is largely rural and sparsely populated outside city limits, areas of heavy devastation may still be undiscovered. As of Friday morning, Adams was still scouting for damage in outlying areas.

While the Cities of Alamo and Glenwood, which are served by Georgia Power, lost electricity for several hours, by 8 p.m. Thursday power was restored. In the county’s outlying areas, served by Little Ocmulgee EMC, most of the lights were back on before 10 p.m.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado first touched down in Dodge County, near the Dubois community, and traveled almost 32 miles to Alamo. It was 300 yards wide, and sustained 90 mph winds at its highest velocity.

A similar tornado touched down in Montgomery County at approximately 1:39 p.m. on May 9. This twister first originated in a mostly-wooded area near the Kibbee community, and then traveled southeastward until it reached the Higgston community. It reached its peak strength within Higgston, near the intersection of Georgia Highway 15 and Azalea Street.

From Higgston, the tornado continued down U.S. Highway 280 280 in Toombs County, and ultimately centering its worst damage in the areas south of the downtown area, in the neighborhoods between 7th and Adams Streets. The twister crossed Center Drive, Estroff Drive, Aimwell Road, and Cambridge Court – leaving behind damage that suggested 90 mph winds – before traveling across the Vidalia Municipal Airport to Lyons, where it went directly over the Lyons Primary, Toombs County Middle School, and Toombs County High Schools’ campuses. It dissipated after crossing Highway 1 in Lyons.

Straight wind damage was seen across Toombs and Montgomery Counties, as both Santa Claus and Mount Vernon displayed damage that suggested winds reached anywhere from 50 to 70 mph.

Over 12,000 customers were left without power within Toombs, Montgomery, and Wheeler Counties, as Georgia Power reported 6,500 outages within the area, and Altamaha EMC experienced 6,400 outages right after the storm blew through. Both companies worked throughout the night and most of Friday to restore power, and ultimately had almost all customers restored by 8 p.m. that night.

Because of the damage from the storm and the widespread power outages within the area, all schools in Toombs and Montgomery Counties were closed on Friday, May 10.

Toombs County Emergency Management Agency Director Lynn Moore stated that the havoc from this storm is like no other. “I believe this is the worse tornado damage I’ve ever seen in the Vidalia area,” he emphasized.

Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency Director Donnie Daniels shared that over 35 calls were placed to the county’s emergency dispatch center regarding trees across roadways, and at least half of those calls involved downed power lines as well. “We saw a lot of downed trees because of the straight winds,” he explained. “There were a lot of trees down on private property, so we are not even sure exactly how many were blown down across the county.”

Daniels continued, saying he had seen damage across the County, with Higgston being hit the hardest, but had been so proud of the collaboration of emergency agencies to help when needed. “I would like for the citizens of Montgomery County to know what an excellent public safety operations we have. I personally would like to thank the Montgomery County Road Department, Ailey Fire, Alston Fire, Higgston Fire, Mt. Vernon Fire, Tarrytown Fire, Uvalda Fire, Prison Fire, all of our Law Enforcement from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and the Mt. Vernon Police Department, Georgia Department of Transportation, and Georgia Forestry for their dedicated and quick response to remove the downed trees that had fallen all over the county,” he remarked. “Thank you to Montgomery/Toombs EMS for their quick response to our citizens during the storm. I also want to thank Georgia Power and Altamaha EMC for their dedicated and tireless efforts to get power restored. To all of our citizens that went out to help clear roads, thank you. We truly do have the best public servants. When you see them, please tell them thank you. As your EMA director, I am honored to be a part of this team. Always stay prepared and stay safe.”

Vidalia Mayor Doug Roper also spoke on the collaboration of communities when reflecting on the storm. “I think May 9, 2024, will be a day we remember for a very long time,” he emphasized. “One of the most common themes I heard as I talked to people around the community was how quickly things escalated. The one thing that was not surprising was how our community responded. We received calls from the City of Lyons, Toombs County, City of Mt. Vernon and the City of Soperton; all of which offered resources in the form of equipment and manpower to assist in the aftermath. I know of several independent business owners, with skilled workers and equipment that immediately sprang into action to help anywhere they could. Our workforce, made up of ESG employees, our Police Department, and our Fire Department immediately executed their plans of action and did a tremendous job.”

Roper continued, “As I spent that afternoon and the next several days traveling our community, it was inspiring to see so many doing any and everything they could to help their neighbors. To now know we had an EF-1 tornado, with a 14.74 mile long and 250-yard-wide track, and not one single person was injured is simply the hand of God. So many residential and commercial properties experienced significant damage, yet everyone remained safe. I would also like to point out how our local schools housed many of our most treasured community members when this tornado hit. From all reports, the staff at all of these schools did a tremendous job to ensure the safety and well-being of our children. Please be sure to thank them for such a job well done.”

According to Roper, Vidalia will continue to work to restore the city after the damage, as he said, “To further assist in the coming days and weeks, the City of Vidalia will waive yard clipping restrictions as part of the storm cleanup. Please be patient with us as we work our way through the community as the amount and size of debris piles to remove is significant. Permit fees for construction related to storm damage will also be waived in an effort to aid the community through the rebuilding process. In closing, I want to say thank you to everyone that has played a part in helping someone through this storm. Times like these are where we shine. We come together for the good of our community and I am proud to call Vidalia home.”

TARGETED DESTRUCTION – A brick wall at the historic old livery stable in downtown Alamo was blown in by a storm packing a direct punch on Thursday. The adjacent building, seen at left in the photo, lost a portion of its roof, as well as a cinder block wall.Photo by Deborah Clark

RESTORING POWER – Georgia Power crews continued repairs Friday after a storm on Thursday afternoon snapped power lines and caused structural damage. Power was restored in Alamo and Glenwood by 8 p.m. on Thursday. Little Ocmulgee EMC crews got most of the lights back on before 10 p.m. in the outlying areas it serves in Wheeler County. Visible at right is damage the storm caused to a building owned by the City of Alamo.Photo by Deborah Clark

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