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Rudi Kiefer: Remembering Newberry tornadoes 35 years later
Rudi Kiefer
The air feels warm, almost muggy for March. I’ve climbed the porch rooftop of a little old house in Athens. A cold front is coming, preceded by a line of severe thunderstorms.

Clark, Hall and other counties are under a tornado watch until the end of today: March 28, 1984. From the northwest, the Gainesville area, an enormous cloud system is approaching, darkening the sky below it.

I can see it slowly rotating. It’s a mesocyclone, the low-pressure system that commonly spawns tornadoes. As the storm gets closer to my perch on Riverbend Road, corkscrew-shaped clouds are forming below the mesocyclone.

Experts advise watching for “sustained rotation around a vertical axis,” and that’s exactly what those are doing. Six corkscrews — also called scud clouds — are turning in slow motion, showing the air rising within them. A UGA student spots me and stops his car.

“Are those tornadoes?” he shouts up at me. “Not yet,” I answer. He seems reassured. I am not.

If the corkscrews develop into tornadoes, standing on a rooftop isn’t a great idea. Graduate meteorology students are known to do crazy stuff like that, so I keep snapping pictures.

But I’m suspicious of the massive sweetgum tree in the driveway and have already moved the car out into a treeless open area.

The week of March 24, 2019, marks the 35th anniversary of the worst storm outbreak in the tri-state area within 100 years. Tornadoes didn’t form in Athens. However, the storm gained monster strength near the South Carolina state line, and unleashed an inferno in that state. Newberry, South Carolina, looked “like a wartime bombing,” newspapers wrote later.

Altogether, two tornadoes touched down in Georgia, 11 in South Carolina, another 11 in North Carolina as the storm churned eastward to the coast. Tatum, South Carolina, reported two F4 tornadoes within minutes of one another.

When it was all over, the three states were a scene of devastation, with 57 lives lost. Emergency services reported 1,248 injuries. Newberry and many other South and North Carolina towns had to be rebuilt entirely.

Meanwhile, in Athens, I’m emerging from my storage closet as the storm subsides. The massive sweetgum tree has crashed exactly into the spot where my car would have been parked. But no tornadoes have touched down in Clarke County. Today, 35 years later, I’m still thankful for that.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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