Nature's fury struck in the form of a tornado just after midnight Sunday, leaving a placid residential area around south Augusta's Brown Road in havoc.
A five-mile swath of destruction ran from a battered roof off Old Waynesboro Road to the punctured corner of an industrial building near Federal Paper Board. The twister's path resembled a war zone, with more than a dozen homes reduced to rubble, cars smashed and overturned, bedsheets and lumber hanging from branches, and hundreds of trees uprooted or snapped.
At least seven people, two of them children, were injured and taken to hospitals in the aftermath of the storm.
The National Weather Service says a F2-class tornado with 50-yard width was to blame. It touched down at least three times during a 10-minute period, Meteorologist Richard Charnick said, reading from a preliminary report.
"It was skipping along," Mr. Charnick said. "It wasn't on the ground the entire time."
At that strength, winds would have whipped as much as 150 miles per hour, Mr. Charnick said. About 19 percent of twisters are of the F2 or F3 class, the most powerful being an F5, he said.
Bernard Palmer, head meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Columbia, surveyed a 1´ mile path of foliage, noting mobile homes leveled, a pickup hurled 50 yards and clocks in destroyed homes stopped at 12:15 a.m., Mr. Charnick said.
Dave Dlugolenski, the director of the Richmond County Emergency Management Agency, said 73 houses and mobile homes were damaged or destroyed.
Fifteen were leveled and 26 suffered major damage including several mobile homes that were tossed as much as 100 feet, he said. The houses hit by the high winds were along Fairbluff, Forest, Brown Hurst and Seago roads.
No estimate of the number of displaced residents was available Sunday, nor could officials speculate on the dollar amount of damage.
"Right now, we're going to take care of the victims and the immediate needs," Mr. Dlugolenski said.
Most survivors spent Sunday sifting through what remained of their belongings. Christmas decorations strewn across lawns and toppled basketball goals were common sights among the wreckage.
Relatives were helping Jim Rogers, 71, and his wife, Catherine, dig out boxes of clothing and Christmas presents from their shattered brick home on Brown Road.
Mr. Rogers said he was watching The Weather Channel when the winds cut through his house. His wife and sister were in bed at the time.
"The next thing I know I was laying flat on the floor ... and the ceiling was on my back," Mr. Rogers said.
The city was working with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency on Sunday to discuss relief options. But the damage likely won't qualify under federal disaster guidelines because it affected such a small portion of the county, city officials said.
"To the people who have suffered the damage, it's a disaster to them," Augusta Mayor Bob Young said. "It doesn't qualify to be designated technically a disaster, but that's not going to stop us from helping these people."
The American Red Cross assisted victims, and some volunteers set up a table and served hot chocolate, coffee, soup and hamburgers to shivering residents and emergency personnel.
First Baptist Church of Gracewood opened a shelter, but Red Cross workers opted to put up refugees at the Holiday Inn on Gordon Highway after only three families had sought shelter by nightfall. Many victims said they were staying with relatives or friends, or paying for their own hotel rooms.
What struck southern Richmond County was part of the same winter thunderstorm that killed 12 people in Alabama on Saturday. It ripped through the Augusta area early Sunday, dumping rain and hail across several counties.
A cold, dry air mass from the north collided with a warm, moist air mass, spawning strong winds, thunder and lightning, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kilmer.
"This is very unusual for this time of year," he said. "This is mostly a springtime situation."
In Columbia County, residents woke up to snow flurries Sunday and blustery winds. The snow fell for only about 10 minutes, said emergency services Director Pam Tucker.
There were a few reports of power outages from the strong winds, but Georgia Power responded quickly, Mrs. Tucker said. She also had reports of hail in the western portion of the county.
Most of the rainfall came just after midnight, dumping .18 inches in less than an hour at Bush Field in Augusta, Mr. Kilmer said. Daniel Field recorded .53 inches.
This week's forecast calls for a 20 percent chance of rain or snow tonight, and a 50 percent chance of rain or snow Tuesday morning.
Staff Writer Katie Throne contributed to this article.
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.