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Tornado’s aftermath: 'uncharted territory for us'
jessie jones.jpg
Jessie Jones surveys what’s left of her belongings after her home was destroyed by a tornado Tuesday at the Park Place subdivision. Photo by Lewis Levine.

Watch drone VIDEO of the tornado damage

View our photo gallery of the damage and Gov. Kemp's visit

An Ellabell woman was killed and eight people were injured Tuesday night when a tornado tore its way through portions of North Bryan, and as local and state officials worked to assess the damage, they cautioned a second system of storms Wednesday afternoon could wreak more havoc in an area that already looks in places as if it had been bombed.

The damage from Tuesday’s tornado, which the National Weather Service, after a preliminary investigation believes was an EF3, included trees uprooted or snapped in half like matchsticks, overturned vehicles, downed power lines and worse, stretching from Pembroke to Ellabell.

Street signs were crumpled, windows broken and, in several cases, entire homes were leveled – particularly hard hit was the Park Place and Homestead Drive neighborhoods in Ellabell, Hendrix Park, and downtown Pembroke near the Bryan County Court House and near DuBois Square.

There, the recently refurbished Bryan County Court House had a portion of its roof torn off, while the nearby County Administrative Complex was essentially leveled, and local officials said Tuesday they weren’t sure when an accurate assessment of the damage would be complete.

To make matters more difficult, cell phone service was mostly nonexistent in much of Pembroke and out at Lanier Primary on Highway 280 between Pembroke and Black Creek. The former school has become a staging area for law enforcement and first responders, as well as a place to meet with community members seeking answers.

It was at Lanier Primary on Wednesday that Governor Brian Kemp met with local media after a helicopter tour of the county and a look at drone footage of the damage to the area. It showed the tornado made a series of hops and skips across the county as it spun its way through North Bryan. 

“The only good thing about last night was (the tornado) didn’t stay on the ground, it went up and down,” he said. “But where it did hit is complete devastation.”

Kemp, like other officials, expressed sympathy for the victims of the storm – including the woman who died. She was in her 60s and her husband tried to save her but had to be hospitalized himself, according to Bryan County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jennifer Fleming.

Injuries to the others were described as minor.

At the briefing, officials pledged resources and praised partnerships between state and local agencies ranging from the Georgia State Patrol and DNR to area fire departments and local law enforcement. County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger said “the outpouring in this community has been tremendous.”

Sheriff Mark Crowe asked that people stay away from neighborhoods and communities impacted by the storm and abide by a 9 p.m. curfew.

On street after street in downtown Pembroke, residents began cleaning up while crews from local utilities rode slowly through the streets. Cell phone providers were expected to bring in emergency towers at some point Wednesday to help restore infrastructure to the area.

Like such storms, there was a random nature to the damage. Homes unscathed sat next to homes reduced to rubble or buried by trees. The Curtis V. Cooper clinic in Pembroke appeared to be destroyed. A flag pole in front of the Court House was bent nearly to the ground and Flanders Powell Funeral Home had extensive damage. There was a hole in the wall at the tax commissioner’s office and windows in a county SUV had been blown out.

The historic Smith-Waters House was damaged a little more than a year after SA Allen Inc. owners John Armstrong and Bosie Morris set up shop in the 130-year-old home, but they said they were fortunate, because no one was at work.

County offices behind them were leveled. So was Hendrix Park, where turf was ripped up and the gym was destroyed. And at Park Place, Jessie Jones came home to find her home destroyed and her belongings scattered over her backyard.

An aunt of longtime Pembroke councilman Johnnie Miller was trapped in her home on Mary Street, one of two destroyed residences sitting side by side beneath a tangle of ripped up trees. She was rescued.

“They had to pull her out of the house,” Miller said. “It was a mess.”

The home next door was also reduced to fragments. Ashley Jackson said she and family members were trapped beneath parts of the house when it fell in on them, she said, and had to be pulled from the wreckage.

After spending a night in a Statesboro motel courtesy East Georgia Regional Medical Center, Jackson and family members were back at the site looking for belongings and a family pet believed to be trapped somewhere in what was left of the home.

“It was stressful,” she said, adding “I’m just hoping I can get my other dog and some of my belongings and get out of here. I’m also waiting on the Red Cross to call me back but I don’t have a signal here.”

On South Main Street, Rae Davis and Samantha Stallard were clearing limbs and other debris from the yard of a home they’d bought for their children to live in while they attend college at Georgia Southern in Statesboro.

Both women rode from Chattanooga overnight after learning of the tornado.

“When two of my text messages to (my daughter) didn’t send, I looked up Stoner’s Pizza and called and they answered. I asked, ‘do y’all have power,’ and they said ‘No, ma’am, a tornado’s just hit Pembroke,” Davis said.

 They made the drive to Pembroke in 4-1/2 hours, Stafford said.

“The worst part’s Atlanta,” she said.

 Pembroke City Administrator Toby Harris, who has been on the job for three weeks, said earlier Wednesday the city is still “in the assessment stage,” and was set to meet with county and state officials and department heads as they began to plan cleanup operations.

Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook called the tornado’s aftermath “uncharted territory for us.”

“What I like about it is that everybody’s coming together,” she said. “People are calling offering to help, they’re bringing stuff, they’ve been great. And I appreciate the cooperation at the state level all the way down to the local level.”

 Among those on hand to offer support were Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter and City Manager Chris Lovell, who said Tuesday night’s council meeting was cut short after they learned what happened.

Carpenter said churches in Richmond Hill and its police and fire stations are gathering supplies such as bottled water and other essentials to deliver to North Bryan.

“They’re in our hearts and prayers,” Carpenter said.

This is the worst tornado to hit North Bryan since 1998, when two people were killed and 15 people were injured when a tornado touched down near Olive Branch Road.

Tuesday’s tornado also will leave a scar. Bryan County Public Works employee D.L. Wells said Wednesday, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” as he helped direct traffic near county offices in Pembroke. “I just about had tears in my eyes when I got here this morning and saw all this.”

Jeff Whitten, Lewis Levine, Patty Leon and Mark Swendra contributed to this report.


State of emergency, curfew remains in place

Where to donate for Bryan County tornado victims




Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp got a tour of the damage in the Pembroke/Ellabell area Wednesday.
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