Violent storms killed at least 16 people in South Georgia Sunday, including seven residents of a single trailer park in rural Cook County, and injured at least 23.
The storms claimed 12 lives in Cook, Berrien and Brooks counties early Sunday. In the Brooks County town of Barney, an elderly couple was found dead in their bed, underneath the rubble of a mobile home that had been lifted off its cinder blocks, thrown at least 50 yards and then slammed into a state highway. The couple’s bodies were still resting on their mattress, while their box springs had been thrown across the road, the county sheriff said.
A later storm in Albany killed four more people there, and search teams were sifting the debris for additional casualties well into the evening. A massive trailer park was heavily damaged, and local authorities said large trees and power lines were down, hampering rescue efforts.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for seven counties, most of them on or close to Georgia’s border with Florida, and President Donald Trump called the governor with his condolences for the lives lost.
About 65 miles east of Albany, in Adel, the scene at Sunshine Acres Mobile Home Park just south of town was one of extraordinary devastation. At least 20 of the more than 90 trailers in the park were shredded.
“Trailers are just flat, just laid on top of people,” said rescue worker Debbie Van Brackle. “You need a bulldozer to pull it off. Trailers are upside down.”
Van Brackle, who is both a school bus driver and a volunteer firefighter and EMT, said she had assisted in removing bodies from the wreckage Sunday.
An Albany State University student who had been visiting a friend at the park said he awoke to lightning and thunder after 3 a.m. and heard his friend screaming. Devocheo Williams, 29, said he the trailer was shaking and coming undone. He ran outside into the dark and heard people calling, “Help me. Help me.”
Williams, who was at a shelter Sunday afternoon at First Baptist Church in Adel, said he then saw a little girl across the street picked up by the wind and hurled 20 to 30 yards. The child’s mother and brother were also out in the yard, and Williams said he watched as the storm picked up their trailer and dropped it on them. He said he tore through the wreckage trying to free both.
The mother told him, “Baby, don’t leave me,” Williams recounted. And he replied, “I won’t. If we have to we’ll die together.”
The mother and son survived with broken ribs, and the little girl he saw thrown through the air suffered a broken leg but also survied.
Across the fields, some mobile homes stood upright, damaged only slightly; some had been transformed into piles of torn wreckage that bore no resemblance to the homes they once were; and other homes were somewhere in between those two extremes. Van Brackle said about a dozen trailers had blown over.
Leaden skies hung over Adel all day Sunday, and rain began to fall by early evening, carrying the threat of additional bad weather. All of Georgia, from metro Atlanta south, plus southeastern Alabama and most of the Florida Panhandle, was under a tornado watch that expired at 8 p.m.
Winds were picking up in metro Atlanta after 6 p.m., with rain falling in several locations. But the worst of the weather was confined to South Georgia.
“These storms have devastated communities and homes in South Central Georgia, and the state is making all resources available to the impacted areas,” Gov. Deal said. “I’m prepared to expand or extend this emergency declaration as needed. In addition to the state’s response, all indications suggest we will also be submitting a request for federal assistance as well.”
President Trump described the tornadoes as vicious and powerful during remarks in the East Room of the White House during his second full day in office. CNN reported that Trump said “we’ll be helping out the state of Georgia.”
Two shelters opened, one at First Baptist Church of Adel and the other at Adel First Assembly of God.
Just south of town, survivors tried to get back to their homes to recover what they could at Sunshine Acres.
Billy Woods, his mom and his two young children were asleep when the deadly storm struck.
“It was like something hit the house,” said Woods, 42. “Water started coming through the ceiling. I grabbed my kids and laid on top of them till it was over.”
The rain was coming in because the winds had torn off half the roof. The moment was terrifying, but it would get worse. Outside, much of the trailer park had been destroyed. At least seven people died.
In the front yard, Woods said, he found the body of one of those victims.
“The guy in the front yard, we didn’t know him, and I couldn’t make him out,” he said.
Woods said the body was naked and bloody.
Woods, a single father with two young children, a son, 5, and a daughter, 4, had moved in with his mother about six months ago and was in the process of buying a house, he said. No one in the family was injured.
“It was rumbling and it’s loud and you’re afraid,” he told the AJC.
The whole experience was over in two minutes, Woods said. Nearly 12 hours later, he stood just a hundred yards or so from his damaged home, but the authorities on the scene wouldn’t let him go back to it. He said his children were very upset and wanted to come back and get their stuff.
“I just thank God,” he said. “It could’ve been worse.”
As he spoke, though, the wind was picking up. There was more violent weather in the forecast.
Two people also died in Brooks County, and another two were killed in Berrien County. Brooks, Berrien and Cook are all in extreme South Georgia near or on the Florida line.
The two who died in Brooks County were in a mobile home that was blown off its mooring and into Ga. 122, Sheriff Mike Dewey said.
The Berrien County Sheriff’s Office also confirmed at least two people died during the storm, according to WALB-TV in Albany.
Berrien County Coroner Robert S. Lovein Jr. described the damage as “terrible.”
At least three more injuries were confirmed in Thomas County.
This is believed to be the deadliest storm since the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak in Ringgold and Cedartown that killed 15. It is also the second major storm to rip through South Georgia this month.