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Tornado likely either high EF3 or low EF4, officials say

The tornado that ripped through portions of North Bryan on Tuesday was either a high EF3 or low EF4 according to preliminary estimates, county administrator Ben Taylor said Thursday.

That means the tornado had estimated wind speeds of at least 165 mph, according to the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates tornadoes on a scale from 0-5 with an EF5 tornado having wind speeds in excess of 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The tornado killed one person, Belinda Thompson, 66, of Ellaball, according to Bryan County Coroner Bill Cox. It destroyed at least 18 homes and seriously damaged several others, Taylor said. Seven county facilities were damaged, four of them suffered major damage – among them the Bryan County Court House and the annex nearby, which may be a total loss.

Damage to the courthouse necessitated an emergency meeting Thursday morning in which commissioners met by conference call in order to adopt a resolution allowing judges to hold court in remote locations such as the commissioner’s meeting room at the South Bryan Administrative Building in Richmond Hill, the city of Richmond Hill’s meeting room and municipal court, with the city’s permission, and Lanier Primary if the school board allows it. That permission is expected to be granted, officials said. 

Lanier Primary, which closed its classroom doors in May 2021, has been used as a command center and staging area for first responders, and Bryan County Elementary has been opened as shelter for those in need of a place to stay.

While local officials say they are still assessing the cost of local damage from the storm, Taylor said it must exceed at least $19 million “in one or multiple  counties” in order for FEMA to declare it a disaster – which would help local governments receive federal funding for cleanup efforts.

Representatives from GEMA and FEMA have already been in Bryan County assessing damage, and Commission Chairman Carter Infinger said he’s been contacted by U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter  offering federal help.

The need to account for the damage means county officials are asking those impacted by the tornado to separate its “vegetative” storm debris – such as limbs and downed trees – and have it put in the right of way to be weighed as cleanup efforts continued. 

The county will likely be putting out information through various channels sooner  rather than later on how to handle storm debris, but at Thursday’s meeting Assistant County Manager Kathryn Downs said  in essence the “big thing with debris is separation,” and that residents don’t hire private contractors to remove it on their own. 

Construction debris in neighborhoods such as Park Place will be handled differently, Taylor said. 

Thursday’s meeting lasted about half an hour and provided a glimpse into the complexity of recovering from such storms, as  county officials discussed coordination between local governments, state and federal officials and emergency personnel, contractors and volunteers.

Commissioners Dallas Daniels and Gene Wallace praised volunteers and county employees while also asking what more the county can do to aid people in need of help, to include whether or not there would be counseling available to those hit by the tornado. 

“One thing we’ve definitely got to keep an eye on is keeping our citizens needs in mind, and make sure they’re met, while we’re moving through the recovery,” Taylor said.

District 1 Commissioner Noah Covington, whose district encompasses much of the impacted area, said the response to the storm was “pretty amazing to see,” and noted the parking lot at Lanier Primary “was stacked with trucks and equipment everywhere you could park and people waiting to be sent out into the volunteering areas.” “It’s still pretty amazing to see how many people there are working there, with all the equipment, from people in the community and people who don’t know this community,” he said. “None of it’s being turned away.”

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