Tornadoes Tear Through Downtown Atlanta
Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times
A partially collapsed building after a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta on Saturday.
By SHAILA DEWAN
and BRENDA GOODMAN
Published: March 16, 2008
ATLANTA — A powerful tornado struck directly at 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 and the convention center.
At least 27 people were injured and taken to hospitals, said Capt. Bill May of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, most with cuts and bruises from flying debris.
No fatalities had been reported by Saturday morning, but crews were combing through a loft complex in the southeastern part of the city where officials said four floors had collapsed, making search and rescue operations difficult and dangerous.
Another wave of tornadoes and thunderstorms, striking Saturday afternoon, killed two people in northwest Georgia, state officials said, one in Polk County and another in Floyd County.
The severity of the Atlanta storm surprised forecasters, who broke into prime-time programming Friday around 9:40 p.m. to report that tornadoes could be heading for downtown. Thousands of people had gathered in the 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. The Southeastern Conference basketball playoffs were moved from the Georgia Dome to a smaller stadium at Georgia Tech
open only to players and their families.
The storm damaged the roof of the CNN Center, sucked furniture out of its lobby and sent storm water into the newsroom. CNN, which stayed on the air, said that one of its computers had been pulled through a window and that dust, glass and water were scattered throughout the building. The storm wreaked havoc on landmarks large and small. Two of the Olympic torch replicas were knocked over at Centennial Olympic Park, and the large sign outside the Philips Arena was damaged. The storm blew the windows out of Ted’s Montana Grill, owned by Ted Turner
, and the Tabernacle, a popular concert venue. Skyscrapers were pocked with broken windows, and billboards were twisted into skeletal scaffolds.
Brenton Young, a dentist from Shelby, N.C., had just put in his drink order at Thrive, a 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 the search and rescue operation would take 24 to 36 hours.
At the Georgia Dome, where the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball playoffs were under way, players from Mississippi State and Alabama froze on the court during overtime, mouths gaping, when part of the fabric roof was torn away by the storm. Catwalks at the top of the building swayed and bits of insulation rained down, halting play and sending many of the 18,000 spectators scrambling for the exits. The game resumed after a 65-minute delay.
Cory Reavis, a 32-year-old firefighter who lives in the loft complex where the floors collapsed, said most of the damage there occurred in an area that was under renovation and not occupied. But he said he helped rescue one man in another part of the complex.
“He was sleeping and the roof collapsed on top of him,” Mr. Reavis said, adding that the man’s injuries were not serious.
Mr. Reavis and his girlfriend were in his loft when the storm hit. “We thought it was the Marta train,” he said, referring to the subway system. The noise grew louder and louder until it seemed to shake the building. “Three minutes later, it was over.”
The National Weather Service
said the tornado’s winds reached 130 miles per hour and in 20 minutes cut a path 6 miles long and 200 yards wide through downtown. There was considerable damage to older trees in the area, made worse by the region’s long drought, weather officials said.
After going through downtown, the storm continued east, passing the Martin Luther King Jr.
Historic District before hitting and devastating a loft complex. The largely residential neighborhood behind it, known as Cabbagetown, was littered with tree trunks, smashed cars and debris, and about 20 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Not far from Cabbagetown, two men stood in a parking lot littered with cinder blocks that had once formed the walls of a two-story auto parts warehouse.
“This don’t happen too often,” said Ruben Thorpe, 50, a deliveryman 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.”
Laurie Kimbrell, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta chapter of the American Red Cross
, said about 80 people had been taken to two shelters Friday night, 50 of whom were elderly residents evacuated from the damaged Antoine Graves high-rise apartments.
The Atlanta mayor, Shirley Franklin, declared a state of emergency at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, a designation needed to make the city eligible for federal recovery funds.
A spokeswoman for Georgia Power said that as of Saturday evening, about 10,000 customers were still without power in the city, along with thousands more upstate.