Originally created 04/11/98

Gore sees tornado debris



MARIETTA, Ga. - Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper got the chance Friday to view some of the devastation produced by a wave of storms that hammered Georgia early Thursday, leaving five people dead and hundreds of homes and businesses damaged.

"We care about you. We want you to know that the entire United States stands with you in your time of tragedy," Mr. Gore said after viewing the destruction.

Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, whose home was damaged by the storms, estimated insured losses at $30 million.

The estimate was based on claims reported by property insurance companies and total losses will likely exceed the insured amount.

Mr. Gore and his wife viewed miles of storm-damaged neighborhoods in upscale areas of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Mrs. Gore snapped photos as their Army helicopter flew over thousands of downed trees and power poles and dozens of homes covered with bright blue tarps to keep rain out of gaping roofs.

Traffic was heavy in hard-hit areas as sightseers joined residents and crews trying to get into the area to repair damaged homes.

Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell and other federal and state officials viewed the wreckage with Mr. Gore.

Then they met at Dobbins Air Reserve Base with officials from the affected counties.

"The damage I saw today confirms the need for quick and decisive action to assist the communities devastated by this terrible disaster," said Mr. Coverdell, R-Ga.

In a briefing with reporters, Mr. Gore noted the string of recent disasters in Georgia, including tornadoes that killed 12 on March 20 in counties north of the suburban Atlanta area where Thursday's storm hit.

Floods and crop freezes added to the loss.

Mr. Gore said 97 of Georgia's 159 counties are eligible for disaster assistance, and he urged people to call a FEMA hotline to apply.

Atlanta was hit hard Thursday by a tornado from the same weather system that devastated the Birmingham, Ala., area before pushing into Georgia.

Most of the 33 people killed Wednesday in Alabama were in Jefferson County, around Birmingham.

Brian Peters of the National Weather Service said the damage widely assumed to have been caused by one monster twister -- packing winds as high as 300 mph, strong enough to lift houses off their foundations -- was really caused by three tornadoes.

He said one hit Tuscaloosa County west of Birmingham, another killed 31 in Jefferson County, and the third killed two in St. Clair County, to the east. The tornadoes injured more than 160 people in Alabama.

Mr. Oxendine has firsthand knowledge of the damage caused by the tornado.

"I have seven houses on my street, and every house is damaged," said Mr. Oxendine, who waited Friday for his roof to be repaired.

"Some of it is very minor. Some of my neighbors have a tree sitting where their master bedroom used to be."

Another tornado struck the Fort Stewart area near Savannah. The tornadoes were blamed for five deaths in Georgia.

In addition, three people died in a fire in Hall County during the storm, but authorities could not say whether the fire was related to the weather.

Also in the storm's aftermath Thursday, Shonda M. Thompson, 7, drowned after slipping into a storm-swollen drainage ditch in Fitzgerald in south Georgia.

Among those killed on the coast was Army Sgt. 1st Class Willie Woods Jr., 51, a Birmingham, Ala., native, who died when a 24th Corps Support Group administrative building at Fort Stewart was destroyed by the storm.

About 40 Fort Stewart buildings and about 100 military vehicles were damaged.

"It could have been a whole lot worse," said Lt. Lee Sharber, a Tennessee guardsman at Fort Stewart for training. "When I heard it, I knew it was going to be bad. It was a horrible thing to see."

Several circumstances helped to ensure there weren't more deaths and injuries. The weather forced Fort Stewart soldiers inside for daily physical training, the time was early enough that civilian employees weren't on post and most National Guard soldiers headed for the base weren't expected until Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.