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Gore tours storm-ravaged Southeast

Damaged home
A damaged house in Dunwoody, Georgia   

43 dead, 200 hurt in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi

April 10, 1998
Web posted at: 10:26 a.m. EDT (1426 GMT)

(CNN) -- Rescue workers searched Friday for victims possibly buried under rubble in tornado-ravaged areas of the Southeast as Vice President Gore got a first-hand look at devastation in the region and assessed the need for federal aid.

The storms that hit on Wednesday night and Thursday morning killed at least 43 people in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Nearly 200 people were injured and 2,000 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged.

Gore was being accompanied by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, including FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

The worst damage occurred just west of Birmingham, Alabama, where a twister carved out a path a half-mile wide and 21 miles long and killed at least 30 people. Weather service officials now say the twister registered as a F-5 on the Fujita scale of measuring tornadoes, on which F-0 is the least intense and F-5 the most destructive.

An F-5 tornado is rare and carries winds in excess of 260 miles per hour.

Of the 43 killed, 32 were in Alabama, 10 in Georgia and one in Mississippi. Tornado warnings gave people at least 15 minutes advance notice of the pending twisters, though the storms in Georgia hit in the early hours of Thursday morning when many people were asleep.

"This storm was so destructive that even people who did exactly what they are supposed to do -- going to their basements, taking the appropriate actions -- (died)," said Paul Syz, a spokesman for the emergency management agency in Jefferson County, Alabama.

"It's hard to see any silver lining in this type of tragedy," said Alabama Gov. Fob James. "But I think the fact that our warning system went into effect a full 10 hours before this tornado set down -- and that so many thousands of citizens heeded those warnings -- is good."

"Thank God that took place or our death toll could have been quadrupled."

President Bill Clinton issued federal disaster declarations for seven Georgia counties, including the four largest counties in metro Atlanta and four counties in Alabama.

Towns west of Birmingham devastated

Alabama schools
New elementary and high school facilities in Oak Grove, Alabama, were leveled by the tornado  

In Alabama, storms hit the state on Wednesday night. Most of the deaths occurred west of Birmingham, in the Jefferson County towns of Oak Grove and Rock Creek.

Homes of wood and brick were reduced to their foundations, with household appliances scattered across yards, limbs and power lines across streets. Ambulances had difficulty reaching the injured and dead.

In the glare of spotlights, bodies lying along the road could be seen in the early morning dark. Chain saws buzzed as searchers desperately tried to get to homes cut off by felled trees, overturned cars and the bricks and timber of ruined homes. The Rock Creek Church of God was turned into a trauma center.

Detailed maps:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • Weather maps:

  • Map of possible tornado touchdowns in Georgia and Alabama
  • Satellite image of Southeastern U.S.
  • Radar image of Southeastern U.S.
  • Emergency crews conducted house-by-house searches for people who might have been killed or injured.

    Leon Hyche lost his niece, Deb Helms, and her two sons, Colby, 8, and Carson, 4. They were killed as they hid in their basement just down the street from him in Rock Creek.

    "It's supposed to be the safest place," he said. "The whole wall collapsed on them." Hyche said his niece's husband, Dave Helms, was not home at the time. "He's crushed," Hyche said. "He's lost everything."

    Two Alabamians also died in St. Clair County, just east of Birmingham, as the storm moved toward Georgia.

    Georgia deaths in Dunwoody, Fort Stewart

    In Georgia, deaths and damage occurred in widely scattered areas that included the northern suburbs of Atlanta and near Savannah in the southeastern part of the state, more than 200 miles away.

    Eyewitness accounts of storm damage in Georgia:

    "It was totally frightening"
    icon 131K/12 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

    "The wind was going crazy..."
    icon 176K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

    Two people were killed in the upscale suburb of Dunwoody, in DeKalb County -- one of them when a tree fell on a house. The storm destroyed scores of high-priced homes and ripped down many trees in the heavily forested area.

    Residential streets and several heavily traveled roads were closed during Atlanta's morning rush hour, including the aptly named Windy Hill Road in Smyrna, a town in suburban Cobb County, where a shopping center was literally blown apart.

    At Fort Stewart, an Army post west of Savannah, one soldier died when a tornado hit. Another 17 people were injured, some of them soldiers. One person died in Bryan County.

    Three people were killed in rural Long County, south of Savannah, when a tornado destroyed 10 mobile homes.

    Three people also died in Hall County, according to Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for Georgia Emergency Management.

    "I was praying," said truck driver Jim Yancey after his truck was turned over by strong winds early Thursday morning. "After it flipped me, I got into a crouch position and waited it out."

    "My (patrol) car was rocking. I thought I was going to flip over," said Cobb County Police Officer Shane Ricketts. "The next thing you know all the lights went out. Rooftops started flying across. A car that was sitting beside me in the turn lane ... got flipped over by the wind."

    Before wreaking havoc in Alabama and Georgia, the same storm system hit northeastern Mississippi, killing a 16-year-old Pontotoc County boy. Authorities said Richard Sills was killed when a hot water heater landed on his head.

    Correspondents Martin Savidge and Paul Caron contributed to this report.

     
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