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Cairo residents had just a few minutes warning before a tornado packing winds of 120 mph barreled into town Sunday night, ravaging several midtown neighborhoods, ripping roofs from homes, and crashing trees down onto structures and vehicles. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has determined that 127 residences and 38 businesses were damaged in the tornado, according to Richard Phillips, director of the Grady County Emergency Management Agency. As of 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, 416 City of Cairo utility meters were still without power.
The National Weather Service says the EF2 tornado whipped into existence at Monrovia Growers located on GA Hwy. 111 S. and churned along a northeastward path for 2.7 miles, hitting areas mostly south of the railroad tracks in Washington Heights, Crescent Circle, then to homes off of First Street S.W., around Cairo First United Methodist Church, the central business district and neighborhoods around Southside Elementary School. At its largest, the tornado had a maximum reach of 800 yards in width, according to Eric Bunker, meteorologist with the NWS office in Tallahassee.
Although Grady County had been under a tornado watch much of the day Sunday, the first tornado warning was issued at 7:51 p.m., and it stated radar had indicated a rotation and that the severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado would be near Cairo at 8 p.m. At 8:04 p.m., a new warning was issued, and it stated, a radar confirmed tornado was on the ground near Cairo.
It was a harrowing couple of minutes for so many who sheltered in fright as giant trees broke in half and others were uprooted and slammed to the ground with thunderous force, and sounds of breaking glass pierced the night as windows burst under pressure, and winds howled and spit rain, dirt and debris against walls, and roofs lifted and disappeared in the dark swirl, and entire houses shook as if they might tumble over.
The tornado instantly plunged 2,274 of the City of Cairo utilities customers into darkness. With trees blocking roads and power lines strewn about, first responders took to their feet, walking house to house to check on the welfare of people living in the tornado’s path.
With so many homes seemingly crushed like empty aluminum cans, first responders may have expected the worst. They were rewarded, though, with the discovery that not a soul perished in the disaster, and all seemed to have survived with only minor scratches.
Cairo Fire Chief Bill Schafer said, “I felt like God just spanked us on the wrist. Any way you look at it, it’s bad, but it could have been so much worse.”
Law enforcement officers quickly established a perimeter around the hardest hit area to keep sight seers out of harm’s way and give first responders wide berth to begin the cleanup. Volunteer firefighters and others armed with chainsaws and a will to help swarmed to the area in need and began working to remove trees from rights of way. Several hours later, nearly all roads were accessible, at least by one lane, according to Chief Schafer who is also assistant director of Grady County EMA.
Since city utility officials could not say for sure when electricity would be restored to all city schools, Grady County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kermit Gilliard announced Sunday night that school would be canceled Monday.
Grady General Hospital and the Grady County Health Department were able to maintain power for the few hours they were out, thanks to generators, according to Phillips.
By 11:30 p.m. Sunday, about 1,100 residential customers had electricity restored.
By daylight Monday, the extent of the destruction was visible and gawkers driving to see the tornado damage began to clog roadways and delay timely cleanup and utility work, much to the frustration of tornado victims and first responders. Authorities blocked some areas as long as possible, but also wanted to allow traffic to flow when necessary.
“It’s a mess. We’ve got more damage than I thought we’d have,” stated Richard Phillips Monday morning.
By Monday afternoon it became clear that utilities would not be restored to the schools in time to open the next morning, and Dr. Gilliard canceled school a second day for students, although faculty and staff were to report Tuesday. The extra day also gave workers time to repair a hallway ceiling grid that had fallen at Southside Elementary School. That was the only noticeable tornado damage to any school building, Gilliard said. Schools reopened as usual today.
The American Red Cross opened a “warming shelter” at the Grady County Agri Center Monday at 1 p.m. and later served approximately 30 dinners to tornado victims there. Red Cross volunteers said they took all remaining meals they had on hand to the affected neighborhoods and distributed them to residents as the warming shelter transitioned to an overnight shelter. Although no one took advantage of the shelter beds Monday night, the volunteers kept it open Tuesday night in case someone needed a warm place to sleep since temperatures dipped near the freezing mark.
While the number of meters without electricity has dropped to nearly 400, Prince said it could be Friday before all who can receive power will have it. He said crews are still working to finish replacing 40-50 utility poles damaged in the tornado. “We still have main lines that aren’t up,” Prince said Tuesday afternoon. “we lost a lot of transformers and a lot of poles and it takes time.” Even when the utility infrastructure is repaired, there are some customers who will remain without electricity due to tornado damage to their residence.