Tornadoes ripped through rural southern Georgia on Sunday, killing at least 14 people, flattening much of a mobile-home park and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in seven counties near the Florida border.
The storms were the latest in a bout of violent weather in the southeastern United States that also killed four people in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Saturday. In Georgia, seven people were killed in Cook County, with two more deaths each in neighboring Brooks and Berrien counties, and three in Dougherty County, according to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
“These storms have devastated communities and homes in South Central Georgia, and the state is making all resources available to the impacted areas,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, R, said in a statement. “These storms have resulted in loss of life, numerous injuries and extensive property damage, and our thoughts and prayers are with Georgians suffering from the storm’s impact.”
Deal said that as state officials assess the damage, he is prepared to expand his emergency declaration as needed. He also said it was likely that he also would submit a request for federal emergency aid.
President Trump, speaking ahead of the swearing-in ceremony Sunday afternoon for his senior staffers, said he had spoken to Deal about the storms and “expressed our sincere condolences.”
“We’ll be helping out the state of Georgia,” Trump said.
He also said Florida and Alabama had been affected, but he did not mention the deadly devastation in Mississippi on Saturday. Tornado damage near Hattiesburg cut across a 15-mile area, prompting Gov. Phil Bryant, R, to declare a state of emergency and leading officials to estimate that damage could soar above $200 million.
“They all got hit hard,” Trump said Sunday. “The tornadoes were vicious and powerful and strong.”
The largest devastation appeared to happen in Adel, Georgia, a town of about 5,300 in Cook County, where authorities told local news media that seven people were killed. A tornado there tore through the Sunshine Acres mobile-home park, demolishing several structures and reducing an entire neighborhood to rubble, said Nathaniel Fixberry, an Air Force staff sergeant who drove to the area to try to help.
“I saw mattresses in trees probably half a mile down the road from where I was,” Fixberry said, recalling telephone polls that were snapped in half. “It was just a debris field.”
Fixberry said he and a friend who are assigned to Moody Air Force Base, some 20 miles away, took medical supplies and drove northwest to the scene after Fixberry’s wife, Kathleene, a nurse, was asked to report to work at South Georgia Medical Center in the nearby city of Valdosta to deal with a “mass-casualty event.” A firefighter told Fixberry that he had pulled at least one body from rubble along with a few children who survived, he said.
“I would say there was upward of 10 to 12 homes that were hit,” Fixberry said. “It was hard to tell – nothing was left.”
The National Weather Service said in an advisory that there was a “high risk” of severe weather as far south as Sarasota, Florida, and as far north as Savannah, Georgia – highly unusual for January. A tornado watch was issued as far north as Atlanta’s northern suburbs and as far east as the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia.
Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that FEMA was monitoring the weather in the region through its Atlanta office and in contact with state officials throughout the Southeast from there. FEMA liaison officers have been deployed to Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida to provide help as needed, she said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Susan Eastman, Dan Lamothe