Originally created 12/18/00

City comes to aid of storm victims



The city's public servants spent the first hours of Sunday morning answering their telephones, pulling on warm clothing and trudging into the foggy winter night for a first-hand look at the tornado damage in south Richmond County.

The state is not expected to declare Augusta a disaster area because the damage was isolated to several residential subdivisions along a five-mile strip running northeast from Old Waynesboro Road to Mike Padgett Highway.

But city officials and utility workers labored amid rapidly dropping temperatures to salvage the belongings of those hit hardest by the tornado shortly after midnight Sunday.

Mr. Young said he and his wife, Gwen, drove to the Gracewood community at about 1 a.m. and returned home shortly before 4:30 a.m. He returned to the scene about noon and saw the damage in daylight.

"This morning you could truly see the devastation that people had suffered," he said. "I think we got everything under control, and I think we did an excellent job of responding."

Shortly after returning home from the city's annual government Christmas party late Saturday night, Interim City Administrator Walter Hornsby said he turned on his city-issued two-way radio to see whether the storm was causing any problems.

"I heard a lady say something about stuff thrown all over the place," Mr. Hornsby said. "I told my wife, `There's something bad going on out there; I'm not sure what it is,' and I heard them call for backup."

He soon learned that tornadolike damage was spread throughout the Gracewood community. About 1 a.m., he began calling county commissioners, including District 8 Commissioner Ulmer Bridges, who represents the hardest-hit subdivisions.

Mr. Bridges stopped by the disaster area, located about 2 miles away from his home, at about 9 a.m., shortly before attending church.

Jefferson Energy Cooperative reported more than 600 customers lost power during the storm, and by Sunday evening about 50 homes remained without service. Telephone poles snapped by the tornadodelayed 20 utility workers' efforts to restore power, said Roy Chambers, senior staking engineer with Jefferson.

Georgia Power reported an additional 150 outages throughout the rest of Richmond County. Utility officials reported that water service was not interrupted.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter for affected homeowners at First Baptist Church of Gracewood, but most of the displaced residents were staying with friends and family, said local EMA Director Dave Dlugolenski.

Homeowners' insurance should pay for most of the damage, but the county will work to secure low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration for those without coverage, he said.

City utility trucks were dispatched to pick up debris and clear blocked roadways throughout the city. A city backhoe and a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle from the game warden's department also were dispatched.

"Homes were destroyed and people's lives were destroyed as a result of that property damage," Mr. Bridges said. "It was just devastating - homes were broken in two or flattened."

The Richmond County Sheriff's Department will continue to patrol neighborhoods throughout the week to deter vandals and looters, he said.

"There are so many government agencies involved, and everyone is playing such a major role," Sheriff-elect Ronnie Strength said. "I've never seen anything like that other than in photographs or movies, but there were some very fortunate people. I don't see how we didn't have any major injuries."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.

Disaster relief

People wishing to assist storm victims should contact the American Red Cross, 1322 Ellis St., Augusta, GA 30901 or call (706) 724-8481. Donations of clothing, blankets, linens and household supplies may be dropped off at the Red Cross or at First Baptist Church of Gracewood off Peach Orchard Road.