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Hams on Hand as Tornados Sweep through Georgia, Downtown Atlanta

05/07/2008

When tornados swept through Georgia this past weekend, Amateur Radio operators were on hand to assist where needed. On Friday, March 14, an EF-2 tornado touched down in downtown Atlanta at 9:38 PM (local time). The National Weather Service said the twister was 6 miles long and 200 yards wide. Downtown Atlanta was a busy place that evening; not only was there a professional basketball game, college basketball fans were in town for the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome. Due to the tornadoes, the final college game of the day was postponed until the next day. According to reports, the tornado blew off portions of the roof of the Georgia Dome.

An EF-2 tornado has wind speeds from 111-135 MPH. In such a tornado, roofs are torn off well-constructed houses, foundations of frame homes are shifted, mobile homes can be completely destroyed, large trees are snapped or uprooted, light-object missiles are generated and cars can be lifted off the ground.

ARRL Georgia Section Manager Susan Swiderski, AF4FO, said "William Chandler, KG4JTK, went from house to house in the wind and the rain checking for any injuries in the homes that had sustained damage by falling trees and debris. At the same time, he issued reports via radio to Barry Kanne, W4TGA, the Emergency Coordinator for neighboring DeKalb County, regarding fallen trees, billboards, power lines and other threats to public safety. Barry relayed this information to the Atlanta 911 center and to the Grady Hospital Emergency Operations Center." DeKalb County is directly to the east of Fulton County; Atlanta is the county seat of Fulton County.

The City of Atlanta Web site reported that "[e]xtensive damage has been reported to a number of landmark buildings in downtown, including the Omni Hotel, Georgia World Congress Center, CNN Building, the Georgia Dome and Phillips Arena and homes and businesses in nearby neighborhoods." The Red Cross opened a shelter at Central Recreation Center with plans to keep it open until Tuesday, March 18. There was "no external damage" to Hartsfield International Airport.

Eyewitness accounts said that "huge hunks of metal and broken glass were everywhere [in Atlanta], as well as overturned cars and benches in the road. Olympic Centennial Park is a mess." The high winds caused major damage to several other landmarks including the Georgia World Congress Center. Many hotels and office buildings had their windows blown out. Grady Memorial Hospital, the major trauma center for the Atlanta metro area, had its 100 foot tall communications tower blown off the hospital roof, disabling the ability to communicate with emergency medical personnel.

ARRL Georgia Section Traffic Manager Charles Pennington, K4GK, served as Net Manager during the storms: "After several hours of recovery and damage assessment, it became obvious that while Atlanta had received major damage to downtown area, there were no fatalities reported and amazingly only 21 persons were treated for injuries." Two fatalities were reported in northwest Georgia.

Effingham County

In Effingham County, near Savannah on Georgia's coastline, Swiderski said a tornado "took down six power towers during the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations," thrusting the community into "total blackout conditions."

"A local 2 meter SKYWARN net, with Greg Tillman, N4VAD, serving as NCS, provided a vital link with the staff at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. Dr Ra Meguiar, N4RVM, a physician and senior hospital administrator, later sent a letter of appreciation in recognition of the local hams 'for staying with us through the weather and the power outage.' He said that this was his first experience in participating in a severe weather net and the 'support was invaluable,'" Swiderski said.

According to Swiderski, reports came mostly through the linked repeater system, "usually from a liaison from one of the many local nets that were going on in county after county, but there were also reports from stand-alone hams who had the misfortune of being in an affected area. There were reports of wall clouds, funnel clouds and hailstones -- large hailstones, sometimes as large as baseballs."

Tillman said that discovered that two mobile homes were completely destroyed and one was "tossed like a rag doll, rolling over numerous times 100 feet from its foundation where the anchors were pulled up from the ground." Nearly a dozen other homes and automobiles were damaged; five people from Effingham were transported to the local hospital for treatment and evaluation, he said.

"In some of the counties, this event was a true 'baptism under fire' for brand new Emergency Coordinators," Swiderski said. "I'm pleased to say that they all conducted themselves and all of the challenges admirably."



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