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Tornadoes Came With Little Notice

February 16, 2000

CAMILLA, Ga. (AP) _ Howling wind and lashing rain were Eugene Lewis’ only warnings in the minutes before a tornado tore his mobile home to shreds.

``I was in bed, ready to go to sleep,″ he said. ``Then I heard it.″

What he heard was Georgia’s deadliest tornado system in more than 50 years. Lewis only had time to huddle his family and pray in Monday’s predawn hours.

No one in the house was seriously hurt, but other families weren’t as lucky. The twisters killed as many as 22 people, according to reports from emergency crews, hospital officials and relatives. The state put the number killed at 19.

President Clinton declared disaster areas Tuesday in four southwest Georgia counties, making federal funding available to help people and business owners recover from the storms.

Vice President Al Gore, Gov. Roy Barnes and James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were expected to arrive in Camilla today to assess damage and detail plans for government aid.

The Insurance Information Institute estimated the total Georgia storm damage at $25 million, including homes, chicken coops, small businesses and farmland.

Forecasters say they provided as much warning as possible, but people here still had only minutes to leave their homes _ if they received warning at all.

Unlike most tornadoes, which hit in afternoon, these killer storms came in under a cloak of darkness _ long after many people near Camilla had turned off their televisions and gone to sleep.

Most televisions were off and radios were silent in Mitchell County when the National Weather Service broadcast its first tornado warnings for the area 40 minutes before the first twister touched down.

``You couldn’t ask for any worse time for a tornado to strike,″ said Robbie Hopkins, assistant coordinator of Mitchell County’s emergency management agency. ``It was dark, people were asleep, and the gates of hell opened.″

Unincorporated Mitchell County has no siren warning system for natural disasters. The small town of Camilla has such a system, but the storm caused most of its damage well out of earshot of the sirens, said 911 director Jim Kelly.

``There was nothing you could do about it,″ said Earnestine Norwood, whose family managed to ride out the storm unscathed. Like hundreds of others, she was picking through debris Tuesday.

Forecasters are confident their storm-chasing technology gave emergency management officials and people in the storm’s path as much warning as possible.

``The software within the system helps us generate warnings very quickly and be very specific,″ meteorologist Paul Duval said Tuesday. ``It works great.″

Emergency management teams and forecasters say the surest way to reach people in tornado danger is by weather radio _ a small box that sounds an alarm for local warnings.

The cheapest weather radio costs about $35, but they don’t sell well in Camilla, said Ann Howard, manager of a Wal-Mart about a mile from the storm’s worst damage.

And the weather service’s high-tech radar, which has made a quantum leap in the past 10 years, was of little use to storm victims who weren’t watching television.

``The best warning in the world doesn’t do any good if the people that need to hear it don’t hear it,″ Duval said.

Hopkins said Mitchell County public safety officials will begin an extensive review of the county’s warning plans for natural disasters after cleanup is well under way.

``There’s always room to improve,″ he said.

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