It had been 34 years since a tornado touched down in McDuffie County, but last Thursday, Mother Nature made up for lost time.
According to National Weather Service meteorologists, an EF-2 tornado formed in eastern Warren County shortly before 8:15 p.m. and followed near the Warrenton Highway through Thomson and continued along Cobbham Road before dissipating in the northeastern portion of McDuffie County.
The estimated 125 mph winds felled numerous trees, destroyed 19 homes and damaged more than 100 others, according to McDuffie County Manager Don Norton. But officials were unanimously thankful for one thing: no one was seriously injured or killed during the storm.
"When you look around out there, you really are amazed that there wasn't some kind of significant injury," Mr. Norton said.
The damage was mostly concentrated in the Hickory Hill neighborhood as well as along the north end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. Other areas hit hard along the tornado's 10-mile path of destruction include Pylant Crossing Road and Cobbham Road, south of Interstate 20.
Most residents said they heard what sounded like a train just before the twister came through. Bethany Drive resident Scott Swann thought the sound was too loud to be coming from the railroad tracks.
"I listened for just a second, and you can hear the train from our house. You can hear the train on the tracks, but this time the train sound was getting closer to the house," he said. "I knew what it was, and we had maybe 20 or 30 seconds to get to the center of the house and in the hallway and pull the doors shut. Then it hit, and when it got over the top of us, the noise was so loud we couldn't hear any of the trees breaking in the yard."
Cleanup and rebuilding efforts are ongoing in the affected areas. Residents spent the weekend clearing debris and attempting to come to terms with the traumatic experience.
"I can't stop shaking. I thought we were going to die," said West Street resident Tina Miner, who moved to Thomson from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "You can't tell from the front. The back of the house, destroyed."
According to Jefferson Energy Spokesperson Steve Chalker, 750 customers were initially without power. Georgia Power Area Manager Bobby Hildreth said 2,600 of the company's customers in Warren and McDuffie counties were without power shortly after the storm hit. By Friday, electricity had been restored to most residences that were not severely damaged.
The destruction prompted state officials to declare McDuffie County a disaster area. On Tuesday, President George W. Bush included McDuffie County in his Federal Disaster Declaration, which covered a total of nine counties.
This means that Baker, Clay, Crawford, McDuffie, Mitchell, Muscogee, Stewart, Sumter and Taylor counties will all be able to receive federal funds to help offset the cost of the initial emergency response, debris removal and restoration of their communities.
The President has also designated that individual assistance be made available to disaster victims in six counties: McDuffie, Sumter, Baker, Crawford, Mitchell, and Taylor counties.
The same line of thunderstorms was responsible for multiple deaths in Georgia and Alabama.
Reaction to the storm caused an almost immediate influx of relief and aid, both from locals and those outside McDuffie County. Law enforcement officers and work crews were out clearing roadways and detouring traffic from the hardest hit areas just minutes after the storm.
The Augusta Red Cross provided food, water and volunteers. They also housed several displaced residents in a shelter at the First Baptist Church of Thomson.
According to tornado-project.com - a website that tracks tornadic activity, Thursday's tornado was only the third in McDuffie County since 1900. One touched down in 1955 and another in 1973.
The most recent state of emergency declared specifically in McDuffie County came in June of 2001 as a result of Tropical Storm Allison, according to Georgia Emergency Management Agency Spokesperson Lisa Janak. That storm brought heavy rains and severe flooding.