Karen Watts says in her 15 years living in Gainesville, she’s never seen a more powerful storm blast its way through the marinas at Lake Lanier than the one that passed through on Monday, Aug. 3.
Watts, who has a 67-foot houseboat and pontoon at Aqualand Marina on the lake, said she was caught off guard when a wall of rain and winds some believed to have reached the 90-mph mark pummeled the marina, sinking docks and damaging boats.
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City estimated Tuesday that wind gusts reached between 70 and 80 mph at times, but the storm did not produce tornadoes in the Hall County area, as some locals reported.
“There were no tornadoes. It was all ... straight-line winds. But they were pretty strong,” Meteorologist Brian Lynn said. “It just was not a tornadic environment, but sometimes when you get thunderstorms colliding, you can get a certain amount of rotation. But it’s very low probability to actually create a tornado on the ground.”
Watts caught the storm on video as she sat in her houseboat Monday afternoon and posted it to her YouTube channel, Watts on Wheels. She and her husband are retired and run the channel, which has more than 4,500 subscribers, to share their RV travels, campground reviews and other videos.
The video filmed from the houseboat shows the Watts’ boat, as well as the nearby pontoon boat, bouncing on the waves, a sheet of rain disrupting vision on the water beyond.
“Oh my God,” Watts can be heard on the video. “Please stay together. … Hold together, hold together,” she says to her dock.
Other moments show Watts helplessly watching as other boater’s vessels float freely and threaten to crash into hers.
“We watch the weather, and every day it says there’s chances of thunderstorms. But we didn’t know it was going to be like this,” Watts told The Times on Tuesday. “When you’re on the lake, you don’t necessarily get much of a warning, and they just kind of pop out of nowhere and you don’t know how much wind you’re going to get.”
Watts said when the storm hit, there was nothing she could do but pick up the camera and start filming.
“You couldn’t get out of the boat, because the wind would blow you over, and all you could do was sit inside and hope that nothing gets hurt, nobody gets hurt … and just pray that the dock stays together. And our dock did stay together,” she said, adding that the walkway from her dock to the shore did collapse, forcing her and her husband to use their pontoon as a water taxi. “I would say being on the boat when that’s all happening is a little scary, but … I’m in a safe boat.”
She said the storm lasted close to an hour, with the most intense portion lasting around 20 minutes. Now, Watts said, trees are down all over the marina, and electricity and water have been cut off. Cleanup, she says, will go on for days, and it will be difficult for residents to get to their boats.
“One of the gals here on the dock, one that lost her boat — that busted loose from the dock — she’s been on the lake since it was built, and she said this is the worst storm she’s ever seen,” Watts said, adding that she and her husband are lucky to have only sustained damage to the canvas on their boats. But that repair will still cost thousands, she said.
She also said management at Aqualand Marina has worked quickly to assist in cleanup and getting things back to normal.
Hall County Fire Services confirmed that Aqualand “appeared to have the most damage,” and emergency management officials said both Aqualand and Holiday marinas were still closed for cleanup and repairs on Tuesday.
“The entrance roads were not heavily impacted and are accessible, but some of the roads leading to various docks were impassable from downed trees,” said Casey Ramsey, director of the Hall County Emergency Management Agency. “Most of the cleanup will be concentrated to dock repairs and vessel removal.”
Ramsey said most of the damage at the marinas occurred in a six-minute stretch sometime between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., when the storm strengthened as it passed directly over the lake.
No injuries were reported, but a marine rescue unit from Hall County Fire Services had to help four people back to shore who were stranded on an island just outside of Van Pugh Park in Flowery Branch, Ramsey said.
Fire services spokesman Zach Brackett said damage at the marinas mainly consisted of docks breaking away from the shore and boats being pushed into one another. There was one report of a “catamaran style sailboat” that flipped over onto another boat, he said.
Brackett also said multiple downed trees were reported, and a residential fire off Radford Road in South Hall appeared to be caused by lightning.
Ramsey said photos of water spouts circulated widely on social media on Monday, but the photos were from “several years ago in other states.”
Lynn said the NWS has continued to receive pictures and reports of the destruction at Lake Lanier marinas. He pointed specifically to Aqualand Marina, which the NWS also believes to have taken the most damage.
Lanier storm Aug. 3, 2020 Video 1Winds up to 80 mph battered Lake Lanier and some of its marinas on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Video from Aqualand Marina courtesy of Mike Hartman)
The NWS received photos from Aqualand of “a couple docks,” as well as boats, that were heavily damaged, Lynn said. He said the same storm system that brought quarter-sized hail to areas of Hall also reportedly brought tennis ball-sized hail in some areas of Gordon County, about 80 miles west of Lake Lanier — a rarity for this time of year.
“(That) is very unusual for August,” Lynn said.
To prepare for severe weather, Hall residents can visit alerts.hallcounty.org to sign up for emergency notifications, like the severe thunderstorm warning sent out Monday, emergency management officials say.
Forecasts for the rest of the week show mostly sunny skies and highs in the mid-to-upper 80s, reaching into the low 90s toward the weekend. Thursday and Sunday present the highest chance of rain at 40%, according to the latest forecasts.