Originally created 05/08/99

Counties survey storm damage



In five days, Edgefield County planned to test its emergency response operations by simulating a tornado.

It is still on the schedule, but seems anti-climactic.

"That was a good shakedown cruise for us yesterday," mused Mike Casey, director of emergency preparedness for Edgefield County. "The biggest thing now is making sure the trees are out of the way."

Just 24 hours after storms swept through the Augusta area, crews spent much of Friday cleaning up.

"We're kind of strung out," said Betty Draughon of Columbia County-based Empire Tree and Turf. "It runs from, `We have a tree down in our yard,' to `We have a tree in our house.' We've had two of those. These microbursts have done strange things to strange trees, oaks, willows, pines. One poor fellow said he was going to take the tree down anyway, but the Lord did it for him."

A microburst, also called a wind shear, occurs when cooled air is pushed out of a thunderstorm and hits the ground. Once on the ground, the shear spreads out in all directions. These bursts can cause damage similar to a tornado, said Pam Tucker, Columbia County's Emergency Management Director.

"A lot of time these winds are even more destructive," she said. "It's not to make light and say `Oh, this was just wind, it wasn't a tornado."'

By late Friday officials did not have a damage estimate, and one may not be ready for Columbia County until Monday.

"We're still trying to get those numbers in," said Mrs. Tucker. "There's a lot of forestry damage."

The damage in Edgefield County was mostly widespread on individual property, and a dollar estimate probably won't be prepared, said Edgefield County Administrator Wayne Adams.

"This is not the same case we had last year," he said, referring to tornadoes that swept through the county last year on May 7, killing one woman and doing millions of dollars in damage.

In fact, there were no confirmed tornadoes in Columbia or Edgefield counties, said Bernie Palmer, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service in West Columbia, S.C.

Tornadoes have a characteristic rotary motion in various levels of storm clouds that radar can detect. National Weather Service radar indicated a downdraft of cool air behind the thunderstorm that swept the area Thursday, Mr. Palmer said.

"What we look for is paths of damage as opposed to scattered damage," he said.

Tornadoes leave different grades of damage -- spots where there are large amounts of damage only a few feet away from undamaged areas, he said. Tornadoes leave a distinctive path of destruction. Where there is straight-line wind, the damage will not be as organized.

Uprooted trees are generally the result of straight winds, especially if the trees are all facing the same direction, Mr. Palmer said. In tornadoes, trees are often sand-blasted of their branches by small, flying debris inside the cone. If they are knocked down, the trees may lie in a circle.

Small pieces of high-speed debris inside tornadoes tend to tear up anything the tornadoes pick up. Walls or roofs blown down but not pulverized indicates straight wind damage, Mr. Palmer said. Tornadoes tend to leave small bits of debris all over the place, he said.

"Straight-line winds can be as damaging or more damaging than some tornadoes," he said. "The character of the damage is different."

The only way to tell for sure is to use an aerial survey to determine whether there is a path of damage, but no such surveys are planned for the area at this time, Mr. Palmer said.

The storm's high winds cut power to about 1,000 customers of the Aiken Electric Co-op, with most of the blackouts in Edgefield County, said Gary Stooksbury, chief executive officer of the co-op. Power was restored to all but about 100 customers Friday afternoon, with some crews working 24 hours straight, he said.

Georgia Power spokeswoman Carol Boatright said about 5,000 area residents lost power during Thursday's storms. By midday Friday, about 200 were still without power, but company workers hopes to have the problems fixed by 6 p.m.

Jefferson Electric officials said about 7,000 customers lost power Thursday, with most reconnected by early Friday.

Jason B. Smith and Preston Sparks of the Columbia County Bureau contributed to this article.

Todd Bauer covers Aiken County and business issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.