Cover Story

The lights went out in Georgia

"IT WAS LIKE A BATTLEFIELD": Winter twisters take the South by surprise, claiming lives and testing the mettle of a community

Issue: "Georgia twisters," Feb. 26, 2000

The Sunday before Valentine's Day, Shannon Harrell dressed her 8-month-old daughter Kylie in a blue denim dress and took her to town to have photo portraits made. By noon Monday, friends would find that same blue dress in a muddy Camilla, Ga., field where both Shannon, 28, and baby Kylie were flung to their deaths by the deadliest twisters to hit the state in nearly half a century.

The mother and daughter were among 19 people killed in four counties by Valentine's Day tornadoes that ripped with savage fury through southwestern Georgia. The storm system also spawned twisters in Florida and Arkansas, and toppled trees and power lines in Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The four Georgia tornadoes were freaks of nature: While southwestern Georgia gets more twisters than the rest of the state, tornadoes of this magnitude normally come during afternoon or evening spring storms, not in the middle of a winter night. They chew up miles of uninhabited farmland, not homes and human beings.

But the first of these twisters touched down in Camilla at 12:09 a.m. on Valentine's Day, less than an hour after the National Weather Service issued its first warning. That spinning menace blew apart brick homes, tossed trailers like cereal boxes, and claimed 14 lives. By 1 a.m., according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Shannon's husband Todd Harrell was on the phone with a friend, telling him the Harrells were preparing to flee their home. But when Mr. Harrell opened the front door of his trailer, he was knocked back by overwhelming air pressure. It was all the family could do to retreat back into the house and lie terrified in the trailer's narrow hallway.

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Mr. Harrell says he could feel the storm drag his home from its foundations, and send it crashing end over end through a field, where it landed more than 500 yards from its original cinder block moorings. Mr. Harrell was knocked unconscious. Searchers, including friends from Pine Level Baptist Church where the Harrells had centered their lives, searched the dark, rain-swept field by flashlight later that night, and found Shannon and Kylie dead.

Once the raging twisters had retreated back into the sky, storm victims, including Mr. Harrell and his surviving 11-year-old stepdaughter Brittany, overwhelmed the nearest hospital.

"It was absolutely the worst thing I've ever seen," said Cara Tyson, the hospital's assistant director of nursing, who battled blinding rain to reach her post. "It was a disaster-people were crying, children were hurt. It was like a battlefield."

The Red Cross estimates that the storms destroyed 198 structures and damaged 150 in four counties. Insurance agents who surveyed the area estimate the damage at $20 million. Officials in Mitchell County, the region hardest hit, say the 300 families displaced by last Monday's storms were people of modest means. "They may not have had the nicest of homes, but they worked hard to invest in something they can call their own. They're not going to leave," Camilla Police Chief Ray Folsom told the Atlanta newspaper. Indeed, these sturdy, independent folk immediately began the hard work of reclaiming what belongings they could, and rebuilding shattered lives.

In the days after the storm, the spirit of community was evident. Camilla townspeople weren't waiting around for federal aid. Instead, local businessmen rolled up their sleeves and pitched in, shearing through debris with chain saws brought from home. A pair of farmers showed up with a Bobcat and asked where they might help out. "The spirit is what you'd expect of the people down here," said Buddy Paracca, general manager of Cagle Keystone, a chicken processing plant and Mitchell County's largest employer. "Some people may not have a roof on their home, but they're looking for what they can do for their neighbor." Cagle Keystone shut down its plant for two days in the wake of the disaster, but kept its kitchens open to prepare meals for storm victims and relief workers.

Friends say Todd and Brittany Harrell are getting through these days with the help of their church. While Shannon and Kylie lived, friends say the family's home was a strong witness for God. During a search of the littered field where the twister tossed the Harrell's trailer, church members found an afghan that had once been on display in the family's home. It was embroidered with a Bible verse: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

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