Residents pick up pieces after deadly Georgia tornadoes

Weather Service initial survey finds EF-2, EF-1 tornadoes struck state

ALBANY, Ga. – Communities in south-central Georgia are assessing damage, identifying those who died and searching for more victims after Sunday's wall of storms spawned dozens of tornadoes.

Authorities said 15 people died Sunday across five counties, mostly along a corridor from the Florida-Georgia border north to Albany, where a search is on for 2-year-old child reported to have been swept away during the storm.

It was the deadliest tornado outbreak ever in south Georgia and the deadliest January tornado outbreak ever.

The unusual midwinter barrage of tornadoes and thunderstorms over the weekend was blamed for at least 20 deaths across the Deep South.

"It is total devastation and destruction," Dougherty County Emergency Management Director Ron Rowe said Monday. "We have multiple neighborhoods that have totally been removed."

The National Weather Service office in Tallahassee surveyed the Albany tornado and found it was an EF-2 that skipped along the ground for about 1 mile. It happened in a community still recovering from an EF-1 tornado 20 days earlier.

WATCH: Sky 4 shows aerial view of Albany damage | Sky 4 surveys destruction in Albany

"The damage that has been suffered by this community is immeasurable," Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said. "We have a lot of people that have been separated from their families (with) no homes, no food, no warmth, no hope. We need a lot of help in Dougherty County."

Two of the four who died in Dougherty County were identified as Paul Freeman, 82, and Oscar Reyna, 39, who died in a mobile home, according to WALB-TV in Albany.  About 50 people in Dougherty County were also injured.

DRONE AERIALS: Cook County | Dougherty County

Miles away in Berrien County, Russell Nix, 82, and Ann Nix, 78, died early Sunday when an oak tree fell on the bedroom of their home. Two others died in Brooks County Sunday morning. 

Some 60 miles away, Coroner Tim Purvis in Cook County confirmed seven people died at the Sunshine Acres Trailer Court in Adel.

The seven who died were identified as 18-year-old Alexis Livingston, 38-year-old Adreian Mays, 41-year-old Lawansa Perry, 62-year-old Mary Cantrell, 33-year-old Jamie Cantrell Walters, 41-year-old Amanda Rowe and 36-year-old Joe Deskins.

VIDEOS: Picking up the pieces in AdelAlbany razed by tornadoes | Cook County residents begin cleaning up storm damage

Emergency officials said it's too early to put a monetary amount on the damage in the town of Adel, but they estimated that 45 homes were damaged or destroyed by Sunday's severe weather in Cook County, and of those, 36 were mobile homes in Sunshine Acres counted as total losses.

Lamar Ray, emergency management director, in Cook County where the deaths occurred Sunday, said he doesn't expect the toll to rise.

"At this time we believe everyone is accounted for," Ray said at a news conference Monday afternoon. "We used the cadaver dogs. We went over the whole area. We did two extensive searches yesterday and then today, with nothing changing."

He said property owners will be allowed back Tuesday morning to see their destroyed and damaged homes -- if they are considered safe.

Adel Mayor Buddy Duke called the mobile home park ground zero, since it looks like a bomb went off. At Monday's news conference, he teared up talking about the support they had received from other counties as well as other states.

"I’ve never seen the outpouring of love and support in any community as I’ve seen the last day and a half," Duke said.

Devocheo Williams, 29, said his home was demolished the day after he moved in.

"The whole trailer park was gone in 15 seconds," Williams said, describing a funnel cloud that appeared to loop back around and hit the neighborhood a second time. "It looked like a ball of fire was going 100 mph."

One family huddled in a hallway of a home across the street from the park while the homes and every tree within 100 yards were ripped down.

"We’ve had everybody saying does it really sound like a freight train," said Lisa Surrency, the family's matriarch. "All three of us were praying. We were praying as hard as we could."

While the house still stands, it’s not safe and it will likely need to be demolished. 

Another Adel resident, Brendan Clayton, considers himself lucky, since his mobile home is still standing while most everything around him was destroyed.

"I lost some stuff, but people lost lives and lost houses," Clayton said. "We were lucky and fortunate."

There was also damage to infrastructure, with widespread power outages and roads blocked and washed out. There was significant damage to a Marine Corps base in Dougherty County.

On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal expanded his executive order, extending his state of emergency to 16 Georgia counties: Atkinson, Baker, Berrien, Brooks, Calhoun, Clay, Colquitt, Cook, Crisp, Dougherty, Lowndes, Mitchell, Thomas, Turner, Wilcox and Worth.

The National Weather Service office in Tallahassee was to survey damage in Berrien, Brooks, Cook, Dougherty, Thomas and Worth counties.

Worth County resident Amanda Turpen lost everything. 

"It's gone. It's demolished. I'm going to cry talking about it," Turpen said. "Never in my 30 years of life have I seen anything like this."

A Worth County man who survived with his life and only some roof damage to his mobile home believe it's a miracle.

"The Lord had his hand on us; he protected us is the only way you can explain it," Tommy Powell said.

Dougherty County authorities said damage from storms affected more than 340 square miles in south Georgia, and multiple state agencies are assisting local governments with search, rescue and cleanup.

JEA said it is sending four eight-man crews to Georgia to help with power restoration, as well as five troubleshooters to Tallahassee.

The American Red Cross of Northeast Florida also said it is sending Logistics Supervisor Melanie Mingia to help support disaster relief efforts Tuesday morning.

Surviving the storms

Chuck Stafford was watching the Atlanta Falcons rout the Green Bay Packers for the NFC title when bad weather suddenly began to pound his mobile home in Dougherty County.

Stafford, 74, had just gotten up to head to the bathroom during Sunday's football game when the wind started whipping the mobile home park in Albany where he has lived for 31 years. His home started shaking violently.

The gusts blew the windows out of Stafford's trailer, spraying shattered glass everywhere. But he was lucky.

"I grabbed hold of my washer and dryer, got my legs spread apart and hunched over," Stafford said. "I guess I picked a good time to go to the bathroom."

Stafford was among residents in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina who were trying to pick up the pieces left behind by the powerful storm system that tore across the Deep South over the weekend, killing 20 people, including 15 in south Georgia. Rescuers were going through stricken areas Monday, searching for possible survivors.

Weather experts say tornadoes can hit any time of year in the South -- including in the dead of winter. Even north Florida was under the weekend weather threat and a woman just outside of Lake City died when a tree fell on her home.

While the central U.S. has a fairly defined tornado season -- the spring -- the risk of tornadoes "never really goes to zero" for most of the year in the Southeast, explained Patrick Marsh, of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

He said 39 possible tornadoes were reported across the Southeast from early Saturday into Sunday evening -- none immediately confirmed. Of that, 30 were reported in Georgia, four in Mississippi, and one each in Louisiana and South Carolina.

Probably the last of Georgia's tornadoes on Sunday touched down at 7:26 p.m. southwest of Woodbine, near the Satilla River. It stayed on the ground just over 7 miles. The National Weather Service said the EF-1 tornado with winds over 100 mph crossed east of Interstate 95 and caused significant damage to the Horseshoe subdivision.

January tornado outbreaks are rare but not unprecedented, particularly in the South. Data from the Storm Prediction Center shows that, over the past decade, the nation has seen an average of 38 tornadoes in January, ranging from a high of 84 in 2008 to just four in 2014.

About the Authors:

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.