Storms kill 7 in Georgia

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- A powerful line of thunderstorms rolled through Georgia in the early morning hours Tuesday, resulting in at least seven deaths, including three in Southwest Georgia.

The squall line that National Weather Service officials say produced sudden winds that topped 60 mph also resulted in severe property damage, with Dougherty County officials saying Tuesday that at least four homes in the county were damaged by falling trees.

State officials estimated Tuesday that the resulting damage was at least $32 million.

In Colquitt County, county worker Ronnie Taylor, 56, was killed when the truck he was driving slammed into a tree early Tuesday. A prisoner, Robert Kincaid, 47, was also killed when he was struck by a tree while doing storm cleanup work.

An Ocilla man who had not been identified was killed when a tree fell onto his home, and an unidentified man in Atlanta died when a tree fell onto his car. Christopher McNair, 45, was killed when a tornado destroyed his mobile home in Dodge County, and in Jackson, Alix Bonhomme Jr., 28, and his son, Alix III, were killed when a tree crached into their home and hit their bed.

Dougherty Emergency Management Agency officials said Tuesday that there were no reported deaths or injuries in Dougherty County, but there were pockets of severe damage.

Jim Vaught, deputy director of Emergency Management for Dougherty County, said that at least four houses were hit by trees and that two families had to seek shelter when the storms rolled through around 2 a.m. Tuesday.

"It was mostly a wind event," Vaught said. "We have four confirmed cases of houses with trees on them."

Power was out in the Newton Road area near Southwest Georgia Regional Airport on Tuesday. Airport officials said they had encountered no problems that caused any flight delays, though an early Tuesday flight was scrubbed because of a plane maintenance issue, but two houses and at least one vehicle near the airport were severely damaged by felled trees.

Vaught also said that one of the county's communications towers was damaged. Communications can be handled by one tower and there was no interruption in that, he said.

The majority of the damage in Lee County so far appeared to be along Highway 19 north of Leesburg, said Bobby Spencer of the Lee County Fire Department.

Lt. Chad Salter of the Worth County Fire Department said that, in addition to downed power lines and trees, there were reports of shelters and chicken houses with major damage.

There also were reports of houses with damaged roofs throughout the entire county, Salter said.

Insurance Commissioner Ralph T. Hudgens estimated insured losses across the state from the severe weather at $32 million. State Farm reported late Tuesday morning that it had received more than 600 damage claims from across the state.

"This estimate includes damage to cars as well as homes and businesses," said Hudgens, who toured Jonesboro Tuesday.

"Based on what I saw today, I believe we have reached $32 million."

Bryan Mroczka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, said late Tuesday that the service's monitoring station at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport confirmed winds exceeded 60 mph.

"It looks like it peaked (at that site) with gusts of 63 mph, which seems to be right in line with our surveys for up that way," he said.

The storm struck late in the severe weather season, he said. Usually at this time of year, organized stormfronts migrate northward. "It was a very strong spring system," he said, "with very strong winds just above the surface."

It didn't help that trees, which are usually bare when organized systems fueled by cold fronts come through, had put on foliage before the system hit. Oak trees, with their heavy canopies already leaved in Southwest Georgia, are especially susceptible to being uprooted by high winds.

"The bulk of our severe weather season takes place before we get leaved," he said. "In terms of severe weather, we're at the very tail end (of the season)."

In the coming weeks, the source of bad weather will come from sea-breeze fueled storms that are not as organized as the cold weather ones, he said.

He said most of the severe weather rumbled through between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in Southwest Georgia.

Hudgens said Georgians can call his Consumer Services Division at 1 (800) 656-2298, if they have questions about a claim or if they are experiencing difficulty reaching their insurance company. Phone lines are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Herald staff writers J.D. Sumner and Jennifer Parks and The Associated Press contributed to this report.