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Remnants of Fay hit Hall; homes damaged; schools evacuated

Lanier up a foot and a half since Sunday

POSTED: August 31, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Seven-year-old Bryan Leonel comforts his sister, Alondra, 5, while the two wait inside a Hall County fire station after a heavy storm forced an evacuation Tuesday at Lyman Hall Elementary School.

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When there were multiple reports of funnel clouds near Lyman Hall Elementary Tuesday afternoon, secretary Elaine Ingram was glad that the school's staff had practiced what to do.

"Those drills do work," Ingram said.

Although school had been dismissed for the day, about 65 children were at an after-school program sponsored by the YMCA when tornado sirens rang at about 3:30 p.m.

Those in the school acted out a drill they had practiced many times. They later were evacuated to a Gainesville fire station across the street because of a natural gas leak.

Areas around Lyman Hall and Oakwood
elementary schools were among many hit by storms Tuesday. Both schools suffered minor damage, but will be open for classes today.

Earlier Tuesday, a severe thunderstorm damaged several homes in North Hall. Tuesday afternoon, families were displaced after a suspected tornado passed through East Hall. Several areas near Commerce in Jackson County also were hit by storms.

The weather caused chaos on Hall County's roads, and the Georgia State Patrol worked 15 wrecks in the county, Operator Parsons said.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Fay, which spawned the storms, dropped more than 7 inches of rain at Gainesville's Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening.

The rains first brought good news to the drought-stricken area as Lake Lanier's level rose to 1,055.23 feet above sea level by 7 a.m. Wednesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, multiple reports of black funnel clouds were a dark omen that the winds that came with the rains were a threat to area residents.

The threat culminated into a destructive "boom" at Lyman Hall, one woman who lived across the street said.

Shortly before winds damaged the school Tuesday afternoon, Kim Osban said the rain was coming down so hard on her white mobile home that she thought her whole house was going to come down.

Osban and her daughter took shelter in their bathroom when she heard the boom, she said.

"It was so loud it shook my house," Osban said.

Across the street, Ingram said she saw the sky darken around the school shortly before 4 p.m.

"Everybody just reacted; everybody knew what to do," Ingram said. "... As soon as we heard that siren and saw that wind, we just went into safety mode."

Dorothy Smith, a custodian, was standing with her co-worker Roy Crowe near the gymnasium and noticed that the air had changed. The wind sounded like a freight train, but was gone in seconds, Smith recalled.

"It whistled real loud," Crowe said.

Then, the lights went out.

As Lyman Hall Assistant Principal Veronica Grizzle directed students in the school's hallway, she fell and hit her head on a wall, Ingram said.

"We don't know if she tripped or if she fell over something, but she was bleeding pretty bad from her head," Ingram said.

Grizzle was taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, and reports were favorable, Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said in an e-mail. Hers was one of three minor injuries reported from the storms, said Col. Jeff Strickland, of the Hall County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff's deputies smelled natural gas when they arrived. They evacuated all students and 50 to 70 employees across the street to Gainesville Fire Station No. 4.

In minutes, the storm damaged some heating and air conditioning units on top of the school, and rendered one of the classrooms and the gymnasium off-limits until they can be repaired, Schofield said.

The National Weather Service has not confirmed a tornado in the county. But Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said there were numerous sightings of funnel clouds from across the county Tuesday afternoon.

Jesus Bravo, 26, said he was standing in his living room less than one mile from the school on Pinecrest Drive when the wind whistled. From the window, Bravo saw his red Ford pickup truck slide closer to the house. The glass on his porch door shattered.

Within a minute, the storm had moved on, and Bravo went out to survey the damage. The wind had picked up cans he had bagged to recycle and scattered them across his backyard along with extension cords and other appliances.

"All this damage in a minute," Bravo said as he surveyed the yard.

One of Bravo's neighbors was injured as the storm moved passed his house, moving her mobile home about two feet. The woman was taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center for a minor ankle injury she received as she was tossed inside her mobile home, an acquaintance, Ben Watroba, said.

In the aftermath of the storm, residents and family members of Bravo's neighbors picked up the limbs that fell on and around their homes from tornado-twisted trees while Jackson EMC and Georgia Power trucks lined the streets, repairing power lines in the area.

Following the storm, Jackson EMC reported about 400 customers in the Oakwood area briefly were without power. Georgia Power Co. reported 30 homes without power in the area.

The residential area near Lyman Hall received most of the damage from fallen trees and power lines before the funnel cloud dissipated, Strickland said. The damage displaced at least one family.

Other schools in South Hall were affected by Tuesday's storms.

Oakwood Elementary School suffered roof damage in the first-grade wing. Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said the school's YMCA after-school students were in the building, but nobody was injured. Students were evacuated to Oakwood City Hall.

At Flowery Branch High School, students were kept in the gymnasium until 4:45 p.m. Buses already had left the school. Most of the remaining students were athletes and cheerleaders. Students at the high school were brought back into the building after school let out at 3:25 p.m., Schofield said.

West Hall High School also was in lockdown and head football coach Mike Newton reported flooding in his office. Principal Jackie Adams said the school suffered several roof leaks.

The storm also caused some damage in Gainesville.

The parking lot at the Office Depot shopping center on Browns Bridge Road was littered with debris. Employees saw funnel clouds along the road shortly after 4 p.m.

A roughly 40-foot-long awning from the front of the Verizon Wireless store in the shopping center lay about 100 feet away in front of Office Depot. At the nearby Dollar Zone clothing store, a truck topper lay in front of a large window that was completely shattered. Across the street from Verizon Wireless, a billboard sign had fallen and crushed a truck at the Auto Gallery.

David Jenkins, a salesman at the Verizon Wireless store on Browns Bridge Road, said he estimates the awning the storm ripped off the small store weighs about 1,000 pounds. He said he was inside the store when the storm hit, and he saw the funnel clouds from behind the glass windows.

"The whole roof kind of popped in and out. The air conditioning on the roof came off its bases," Jenkins said. "It just got completely black and the rain was falling even harder. We saw the trees and signs bending, but they were bending away from us."

The heavy rains caused at least one wreck in Gainesville when an elderly man crashed through the exterior of the Eye Site of Gainesville on Thompson Bridge Road.

Sue Jones said she and husband Herman Jones had just heard a tornado warning when a vehicle came barreling through the examination room. No one was in the room at the time.

"The building practically shook to the foundation. We thought we'd been hit by the tornado," said Herman Jones, an optician at the clinic.

Roy Cromatie, who was turning into the parking lot of the building, was startled by an oncoming vehicle and went to press the brake pedal. His foot slipped onto the gas pedal and he accelerated.

Cromatie's car broke through a concrete parking barrier and a wrought-iron fence before breaking through the wall of the exam room.

"It was just terrible weather," said Sue Jones. "The car was half in the exam room."

In Jackson and Banks counties, Tuesday's storms left many without power and downed trees. At one point, 15,500 Jackson EMC customers were without power.

Banks County Emergency Management Agency Director Deidra Moore said many didn't have power, and she wasn't sure when power would be restored. She said the storms also hit many surrounding counties hard.

"Jackson County is pretty banged up, especially in the Commerce area," Moore said.

She said emergency services responded to the area along the Banks/Jackson County border near Ga. 15. Power lines and trees were down, and police blocked off the area to check on mobile home residents in that area.

Connie Presley, a night shift supervisor at Jackson County Emergency Services, confirmed that the heaviest damage occurred in Commerce.

"We had two minor injuries. There were several trees down on roofs and power lines down," Presley said.

Mobile home parks along Homer Road received a good portion of the storm's forces, she said.

Times staff writers Melissa Weinman, Jessica Jordan and Jeff Gill, along with regional staff writer Claire Miller, contributed to this report.




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