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Apparent Tornado Kills 7 in Georgia

March 20, 1998

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP)_ An apparent tornado touched down north of Gainesville early today, damaging dozens of homes, some poultry farms and an elementary school. Authorities said seven people were killed and about 70 were injured.

Lt. Art Jetton of the Hall County Sheriff’s Department said five people, including two children, were killed in mobile homes near North Hall High School, an area hit hard by the storm. They included three people in one family and a 12-year-old girl whose home was picked up by the winds and dumped into a pond, said Sheriff Robert Vass.

Another victim was in a truck near Lanier Elementary School, also in a hard-hit area, Jetton said.

The seventh victim was a 4-year-old girl in neighboring White County, said David Abercrombie of White County Emergency Management Service.

There also was one death unrelated to the high winds. A Dawson County sheriff’s deputy stopped to help at a storm-related traffic accident in Hall County and was hit and killed by another car.

The National Weather Service did not immediately confirm the storm was a tornado, but witnesses said the damage was consistent with a twister. Aerial television footage showed a path of damage half a mile wide and 10 miles long in a mostly rural area. Waterfront homes on scenic Lake Lanier were smashed to pieces and huge trees were ripped from the ground.

Across the street from North Hall High School, five mobile homes were leveled, but several cars parked in their driveways were undisturbed.

Gov. Zell Miller declared a state of emergency in Dawson, Hall, White, Habersham and Rabun counties after touring areas hard hit by the storm. He also called up the National Guard to help prevent looting.

``Homes look like they’ve just been imploded. It’s terrible,″ Miller said after a tour of the damage.

The weather service did not issue a tornado warning before the storm hit Hall County. Instead, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 6:46 a.m. Meteorologist Barry Gooden said the weather service didn’t know about the possible tornado until it hit.

``Looking at radar, it did not indicate it being a tornado at the time,″ he said. He said the warning was issued after the fact to make people aware the storm was moving through the area.

``A lot of people got in the path of flying debris,″ said Kathy Bowers, spokeswoman at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. She said her hospital 57 people with cuts, bruises and abdominal injuries.

Another 13 injured were taken to Lanier Park Hospital, said spokeswoman Jane Ellen Rigg.

A 10-month-old boy was taken by helicopter ambulance to Elgeston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta.

Rescue workers went house to house, searching through the debris for other possible victims.

City Manager Carlyle Cox said 12,000 people were without power.

Hillary Gray of Gainesville said she left home early and saw the damage just after the storm hit about 6:30 a.m.

``If I had been two minutes ahead, it would have hit me,″ she told WSB-TV in Atlanta. ``The devastation is just horrible. There were trees everywhere and houses. There were roofs across the road.″

About a third of Lanier Elementary School was damaged, said Lee Lovett, an assistant superintendent for the Hall County school system.

Susan Bagwell, principal of the 585-student school, said an elderly custodian and his daughter were in their mobile home near the school when the storm hit. Both were checked at a hospital but neither was seriously hurt, she said.

No children were present.

``Had it been 45 minutes later there would have been 600 kids in that school. So I guess we were lucky after all,″ said Sheriff Vass.

At least two portable buildings also were destroyed at North Hall Middle School, Lovett said.

He said the middle school, North Hall High School and five elementary schools, including Lanier, were closed today because of damage or impassable roads.

The worst road damage was on Georgia 60 north of Gainesville, the Hall County road maintenance department said.

Also damaged were several farm buildings containing hundreds of chickens each. There was no immediate word on how many birds were lost.

Damage also was reported in White and Rabun counties, north of Hall County in northeast Georgia.

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