Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tornado Hits Downtown Atlanta

I wish I could embed this...

Tornado slams downtown Atlanta

  • Story Highlights
  • Fire department reports numerous injuries, widespread damage
  • Witness: "There were trees that were actually broken"
  • Witness: People were getting pushed by the wind
  • Downtown hotel evacuated


ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A tornado swept through downtown Atlanta Friday night, slamming trees into cars and homes, disrupting a college basketball game and damaging the building that houses CNN.

Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Capt. Bill May said there were numerous injuries and widespread damage reported in downtown Atlanta, with roofs ripped off and trees torn down.

The storm tracked from the northwest side of the city to the southeast, demolishing buildings and downing trees that crushed cars and ripped through the roofs of homes.

The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for the area, in effect until 10 p.m. The storm came through at about 9:45 p.m.

Inside CNN Center, water poured through damage in the ceiling into the building's atrium. Glass shattered, and parts of the building filled with dust.

Timothy Wood, 30, of Cumming, Georgia, took refuge from rain at Philips Arena. "First thing I saw were cups then I saw larger objects -- like parts of Philips Arena were coming off and being blown into the street," Wood said.

"People were just running to the closest place of safety they could find. Me and another guy were struggling trying to close the door to Philips and we saw another guy across the way and we waved him over. It probably lasted about two minutes. We went back outside after it was over and there were trees that were actually broken," he said.

Virtually all of the windows facing Centennial Olympic Park on the Omni Hotel, which is attached to CNN Center, were shattered. One employee said visitors to the hotel were being evacuated.

Windows also were shattered in the newsroom. CNN's library was also damaged.

Outside the building, debris littered the streets and billboards collapsed onto parked cars. Centennial Olympic Park was also severely damaged.

Next door at the Georgia Dome, the SEC conference basketball game between Alabama and Mississippi State was halted. The storm visibly rippled the ceiling of the dome and caused some damage, video of the arena showed. Scaffolding holding the facility's scoreboard swayed 15 minutes after the storm hit.

Joe Bryson, 28, of Cumming, Georgia, was outside when the winds hit. Bryson had been trying to find tickets to the SEC game between Georgia and Kentucky, which had been scheduled for later Friday.

"When it started to drizzle a little bit, everyone got under some shelter, watching things develop. It started to pick up a bit. When the metal barriers fell over and started skidding along the ground that's when everyone started -- not panicking -- but going inside.

"I saw two fellas who were running to come to shelter and they were getting pushed from the back [by the wind]. They got knocked down but got right back up and followed everyone inside," Bryson said.

Catherine Niehaus, an iReporter, was inside the Georgia Dome when she said the roof split, scaffolding slipped and the scoreboard started to sway.

Lucas Shields, who also was at the Georgia Dome game, said, "It was actually in overtime, and the game was getting exciting, and I thought people from the Alabama side were hitting the bleachers trying to get some noise going. All of a sudden the TV went out, the overhead clock stopped working, and you hear that distinctive noise of a train."

The game resumed about an hour later, but the Kentucky and Georgia game was postponed.

The streets outside were smothered in slabs of metal and insulation material. Cars and emergency vehicles were scattered among the debris as hundreds of people, many of them attending the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, wandered around talking on cell phones.

Heaps of bricks and sheetrock were pushed up against cars. Street signs were bent in half.

In the neighborhood of East Atlanta, resident Cameron Beasley said he could see four or five homes with storm damage, including trees knocked through their roofs, and several cars crushed by downed trees.

"Something really fierce came down," said Beasley who said he and his wife ran with their two children into their basement about 15 seconds before the storm hit. "It was just crushing cars, crushing houses."

Outside, construction cones and newspaper boxes were shoved into the street.

The National Weather Service issued another tornado warning for suburban Newton and Rockdale Counties southeast of the city.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most recent downtown tornado in the United States hit Jacksonville, Florida, August 12, 2004. There were no deaths.

According to the NOAA, the deadliest tornado to hit a downtown area in the 20th century was May 11, 1953, when 114 people were killed in Waco, Texas.

Although downtown tornadoes are rare, it's a misconception they can't happen, according to The Tornado Project, a company that gathers and compiles tornado information. "That more 'cities' aren't struck by tornadoes is probably more coincidence than anything else," according to the project's Web site.

"There are very few 'big cities' with skyscrapers in Tornado Alley. In fact, there are only a dozen, and one of them, St. Louis, Missouri, has a long history of tornadoes in its central area."