East Metro spared from bad weather
RCSO mobile command vehicle deployed to Atlanta

CONYERS - Rockdale and Newton counties were in the path of heavy storms, hail and tornadoes much of Saturday, but ended the day relatively unscathed.

Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington said deputies responded to a number of calls of flooding in some areas, downed trees and out-of-service traffic signals, but no major damage was reported as of press time.

In Newton County, Sgt. Mark Mitchell said the sheriff's office responded to reports of damaged trees and a few minor traffic accidents, but again, nothing serious.

The string of storms that came through Atlanta began Friday night.

Wigington said his office fielded an increased number of calls overnight, but most of those were weather-related instances.

"We had one tree down and some traffic lights were out, there were some areas of flooding and some were traffic accidents, but nothing serious," he said Saturday. "Any time there is strong thunder and lighting, we get a tremendous amount of false alarms, either due to power surges or vibration of thunder that triggers alarms. It's common for us to have extra calls in bad weather."

Even so, the threat of tornadoes was enough for local hospitals to take precautionary steps. Sharon Barbour, spokeswoman with Newton Medical Center, said that patients were moved into the hallways during the time tornado warnings were issued.

Marsha Terry with Rockdale Medical Center said that emergency department personnel moved patients into nearby hallways away from windows and doors throughout the duration of the tornado warnings.

Atlanta, however, received the brunt of the weather Friday. A tornado, classified as an EF2 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, lasted about 20 minutes and left broken glass, furniture, tree branches, power lines and other debris strewn onto the streets.

The Associated Press reported that streets around the Georgia Dome, Phillips Arena, the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park were littered with broken glass, downed power lines, crumbled bricks, insulation and the occasional office chair. Billboards collapsed onto parked cars.

Power was knocked out to about 19,000 customers.

About 27 people were hurt Friday night, though no injuries were believed to be life-threatening

All downtown events scheduled for Saturday were canceled, including the St. Patrick's Day parade.

In response to a request from the Atlanta Police Department, Wigington said the sheriff's office deployed the mobile command unit, which is now being used as a communications center for emergency responders in Atlanta. The sheriff said the 53-foot state-of-the-art mobile command vehicle is parked on the exit ramp of Interstate 75 at Edgewood Avenue.

"I expect it will be up there for day or two, but if we had something at home, obviously we would pack up and come back home; but hopefully, we'll be spared that," Wigington said.

The mobile command vehicle, which is the largest mobile command unit owned by a sheriff's office in the state, was purchased by the RCSO in 2006 through grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and money seized through drug-related offenses.

Although a tornado warning was issued, there was no announcement of the approaching storm for the 18,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome for the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament. The first sign was rumbling and the rippling of the fabric roof. Catwalks swayed and insulation rained down on players during overtime of the Mississippi State-Alabama game, sending fans fleeing toward the exits and the teams to their locker rooms.

A later game between Georgia and Kentucky was postponed until Saturday. SEC officials said the tournament's remaining games would be played at Georgia Tech.

The Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, located east of downtown, had severe damage to one corner and appeared to have major roof damage. Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Capt. Bill May said a vacant building also collapsed, with no apparent injuries.

Thunderstorms continued throughout the day Saturday. Counties north of the city were hardest hit with tornadoes that continued to roll through early Saturday afternoon and then later in the day, a string of bad weather, including reports of golf ball-sized hail and heavy winds, made its way along Interstate 20.

At least one person died Saturday after a tornado came touched down in Polk County located near the Alabama border.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Aimee Jones can be reached at aimee.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.