Originally created 02/23/03

Severe weather leaves its mark



Augustans breathed a sigh of relief as severe thunderstorms and a tornado passed through the area Saturday morning, causing serious damage in Columbia and Aiken counties but leaving Richmond County unscathed.

The storm spawned a tornado, which devastated a Columbia County farm, and high winds that leveled vendors' tents at the Battle of Aiken.

Richmond County officials said they had not received any reports of damages or injuries after the storm.

People in Evans weren't as lucky.

A tornado ranked as an F-2 leveled three buildings on an Old Clanton Road farm and damaged several homes in Windmill Plantation. Tornadoes are classified on a scale of F-1 to F-5, with F-1 being the least severe and F-5 the most.

"It's just unbelievable," said Pat Wheatley, who lives on the farm, as she shed tears looking past a toppled oak beyond where her barn used to be.

"You see people on TV and you ask, 'How can they bear it?' I see now: We're alive. That's what matters."

Columbia County Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker said damage estimates could top $200,000.

"I hope this makes everybody realize that when we have a tornado watch that they need to go ahead and be on the lookout, because nothing showed up on radar," she said. "Tornadoes are so dangerous because they can happen at a moment's notice with little or no warning."

Mrs. Tucker says the tornado might have touched down during a five-minute interval while the radar was updating.

Weather officials will review radar shots for 10:15 a.m., when the tornado hit, to further determine the extent of the storm's damage.

Bob Smith, the chief meteorologist for WRDW-TV, said the storm was associated with a cold front moving through the Southeast. The front extended from Washington, D.C., to the panhandle of Florida.

The area's storm developed in eastern Texas on Friday, then moved through Alabama and hit the Atlanta area just after midnight, Mr. Smith said. The storm - consisting mostly of microbursts - moved through the Augusta area between 9 and 11 a.m., he said.

Microbursts can cause as much damage as tornadoes, Mr. Smith said. These types of storms are more common during the spring and fall, he said.

"In the winter you don't have as much energy in the atmosphere because of the lack of heating, but occasionally it does get warm enough and the air gets unstable enough to create squall lines," Mr. Smith said.

The storm's wrath was felt across the state, and several area counties had damage, including Burke, Jenkins, Lincoln and McDuffie.

Carol Boatwright, the spokeswoman for Georgia Power, said that 400 to 500 customers experienced power loss in the area because of heavy winds that forced trees and limbs into power lines. Technicians had restored power locally but were still working in other areas of the state Saturday night.

Metro Atlanta had the most outages with about 10,000 customers affected, Ms. Boatwright said. Columbus and northwest Georgia experienced about 1,500 power outages each, she said.

In Aiken County, trees bore the brunt of the damage. No power outages were reported, according to a dispatcher.

The storm marched through the Battle of Aiken campground in Windsor, where patrons reported seeing funnel clouds. High winds alone caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages at the event.

A village of tent vendors was flattened by gusting winds. An RV was tipped over and antique and replica Civil War memorabilia was sent flying like cannon blasts across the site.

Authorities said only four people suffered minor injuries during the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was called to assist vendors, most of whom said they were uninsured, said Pete Peters, an event organizer.

"I held on for dear life," said acting 1st Sgt. Jack Sharpe of the South Carolina State Guard. Its members and battle participants helped vendors recover after re-enactments were canceled Saturday.

Ironically, Saturday was the last day of Severe Weather Awareness Week in Georgia. Ms. Tucker says the public awareness and preparedness campaign might have helped save some lives.

"Everyone I talked to said they got in their basement or sought shelter in a bathroom in a tub," she said. "If someone had been outside during this, they would probably be dead."

Staff Writers Jason B. Smith and Josh Gelinas contributed to this article.

Reach Donnie Fetter or Albert Ross at (706) 724-0851.