North Columbus was plunged into darkness and chaos Thursday as a powerful storm swept across the city from Green Island Hills east along the J.R. Allen Parkway toward Moon Road, ripping roofs from homes and dropping trees.
Emergency crews scrambled to search for injured people and assess the damage, blocking roads and preventing residents from returning to wrecked neighborhoods where gas leaked and power lines were down.
"We drove right into it," said Andrew Dickens, a Columbus doctor who was driving west on J.R. Allen Parkway near the Whitesville Road overpass with son Benjamin, 6. "It was a wall of wind and water."
Dickens said he was behind a westbound tractor-trailer that was pushed sideways off the road when the tornado hit about 6:30 p.m. He and his son stopped under the underpass.
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After waiting briefly there, Dickens said he drove to Brookstone where he saw downed trees everywhere. "God left a path available for us," he said. "The whole neighborhood has been ripped to shreds."
The storm system, which spawned a tornado in Columbus, was part of the same system that wreaked havoc on multiple counties across Georgia and Alabama.
Evelyn Bailey of Georgia Power said late Thursday that approximately 15,000 customers in Columbus were without power after a tornado touched down in northern Muscogee County. A major transmission tower was severely damaged, resulting in widespread power loss. Crews were called out en masse and were expected to work through the night to restore the mangled power lines.
Jan Ellis, a spokeswoman for Alabama Power, said 3,200 homes in Phenix City were without power, with many customers north of Steeplechase Apartments, where a transmission pole was damaged. "Some time in the early morning we will get power back on," Ellis said. "We will work all night long until we get everybody back on."
A spokesperson at the National Weather Service in Peachtree City said Doppler radar indicated shortly after 6 p.m. there was a tornado headed toward north Columbus. They issued a warning at 6:19 p.m. and within 11 minutes, damage reports began flooding into the weather center, the spokesperson said.
Officials in Columbus received numerous reports of a tornado delivering punishing blows to neighborhoods on the north side of Columbus. Areas included Green Island Hills, Brookstone, Double Churches to Veterans Parkway and Mobley Road.
Phenix City officials indicated the northern area of the city received the most damage with trees down in the Summerville Road, Rock Island and Macintosh Creek neighborhoods, said Chance Corbett, director of the Russell County Office of Homeland Security/Emergency Management.
"We've been very lucky so far," Corbett said late Thursday evening. "There have been no reported injuries."
Emergency management set up a command center at the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Veterans Parkway near Whittlesey Road. Riley Land, Columbus' deputy director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said at 9 p.m. that officials still were trying to gauge the extent of the damage. "We're trying to get units in and coordinating those units, and try to make sure we're still not facing weather while we do it."
Rising winds and booming thunder signaled the advance of a second wave of severe storms as crews fanned out to check the devastation from the first one.
Land was encouraging residents to avoid travel if they could: "If they don't have to drive, don't get out and ride around."
No classes held
Muscogee school administrators decided to cancel classes for today because of the heavy damage, said Deputy Superintendent Robin Pennock. Though there was no damage reported on the south side of town, officials felt teachers living on the north side would have to be home dealing with insurance claims and storm cleanup, and travel would be difficult.
"We just really felt it was better to make an early, clear decision," she said.
Reports from residents and police told of trees down and homes damaged in Green Island Hills and in Brookstone, where witnesses said that treetops were gone, high winds having pruned them from the trunks and dropped them on houses and across roads.
"You can't get in and out of a lot of Brookstone because it's blocked," said Pat Chitwood, who lives on Newport Place at the neighborhood's west end. "There are trees through roofs everywhere."
She had not yet heard of any injuries there.
For The Medical Center in Columbus, Thursday night was pretty much business as usual, although emergency room doctors did treat one patient brought in about 6:30 p.m. with injuries that could have been sustained on rain-slicked streets, said hospital spokesperson Marion Scott.
"For the most part it's been a routine evening in the ER," Scott said.
The night is one Betty Gregg won't soon forget. She lives on Buckeye Way and heard a loud noise that forced her to retreat to her bathtub with her two miniature Schnauzers, Bailey and Bridgett. She then felt a loud pressure in her ears and heard the violent storm overhead.
"The bathtub is the safest place," Gregg said.
Sharon Cheatham, also a resident of Buckey Way, said she heard the outdoor warning sirens warning residents to seek shelter. She went outside her home through a storm door where she could see J.R. Allen Parkway. She saw a tornado coming down J.R. Allen. "It was a twister. It felt like the slab moved on our house."
Several homes behind nearby Hamilton Station had roofs ripped off. The Hampton Inn off Veterans Parkway was evacuated. Everything north of Veterans from Whittlesey Boulevard was out of power.
For residents of Midland subdivision of Kings Trail, Gramercy Park and Wellington Point, driving home required a treasure map. For most of the evening, Veterans Parkway was blocked going north. By 9:30 p.m., the successful route involved going east on J.R. Allen to Schomburg to Hancock where motorists faced large trees toppled from the storm.
Metro editor Dimon Kendrick-Holmes contributed to this report.