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Laurens, Johnson counties cleaning up in deadly storms wake

By Wayne Crenshaw –

Posted on Mon, May. 12, 2008

LAURENS COUNTY — Charles Blackburn did not describe what he saw
in the sky Sunday morning in Wrightsville as a tornado, but it did
render him speechless.

Blackburn, the public works director for the City of
Wrightsville, was an eye witness to the storm that came over the
city at about 6:45 a.m. He and public works employee Junebug Pope
were in a pickup truck at the city’s wastewater treatment plant
when the weather suddenly turned ugly. Trees started snapping and
then Blackburn saw a thick, grey, sheet of rain coming at him,
picking up trees and dropping them within 30 yards of the

“It was kind of a scary situation,” he said Monday. “We didn’t
speak to each other for two or three minutes.”

The storm cut a swath through Johnson County that destroyed
several homes, damaged many others, and felled pine trees by the

“This was by far the most significant weather event our
community has experienced, just by the sheer widespread
devastation,” said Wrightsville Police Chief Steve Gresham.

Despite all the damage, there were no fatalities or serious
injuries, but there was a Johnson County family in mourning Monday.
Wadell Clements of Johnson County is the father of Tracey Clements,
who was killed by the storm at his home in Laurens County. Tracey
Clements’ wife, Lisa, was in critical condition at the Medical
Center of Central Georgia, Wadell Clements said Monday. She has
severe head injuries and brain damage, he said. But their two
daughters escaped with only minor injuries. They were treated at
the hospital and released.

“They are real upset but holding on,” Clements said of the two
girls. “They are accepting it as best they can.”

Just a few hundred feet over from where the fatality occurred,
Margaret Pippin was watching volunteers clear fallen trees in her
front yard.

“I feel like we were very blessed,” she said. “All we had were
trees down.”

The volunteers working in her yard were Ralph Mullis and his
brother, Herman Mullis. Ralph Mullis shut down his landscaping
business to roam through the affected areas with his Bobcat on a
trailer, with a sign on the rear that said “Can I help?” He stopped
for anyone who asked, he said, at no charge. He planned to stay at
it all week if needed.

“It was just so devastating, and we were so blessed that it
missed us,” said Ralph Mullis, who is from Rentz. “We were blessed
not to be involved in it, and we just wanted to help.”

Crews were still working to restore power in Laurens and Johnson
counties on Monday. There was no clear indication of when it would
all be restored.

Chad Phillips, a lineman with Washington Electric Membership
Corp. was working with three cherry-picker crews on a lengthy
section of downed lines along Ga. 319 between Wrightsville and

“I’ve been here 16 years and this is the worst storm I’ve
seen,” he said. “This is going to be a week-long job.”

The EMC is getting help from several crews throughout Georgia,
he said.

The storm virtually clear-cut a wide swath of pine trees in
front of the home of Shawn Wombles, Johnson County’s Emergency
Management Agency director. From the outside the home appears
unscathed, except for the roof getting lifted off the garage, but
the house might be a loss, said Wombles’ wife, Denise. The house
shifted on the foundation, and the frame cracked across the front
as if the top half was about to be lifted off when the storm

In fact, Denise Wombles said the speed of the storm might have
saved them. She estimated that it came and went within about 60

“If it had been here another 10 seconds, the top would probably
have been gone,” she said.

Shawn Wombles has been the EMA director for 15 years, and this
storm was a new experience for him.

“I’ve never had to be the one to be rescued,” he said. “I’ve
always been the one to go help folks.”

He was essentially trapped on his property because of all the
trees over his driveway. Special equipment was brought in to clear
the drive, but Wombles said the emergency response Sunday was
largely coordinated by his deputy director, Burt Dixon Jr.

“I feel like we did a great job yesterday,” he said.

Johnson County schools were closed Monday, will be closed today,
and might be closed Wednesday, Gresham said. Although power has
been restored to schools and most of the city, so much of the
county is still without power that the school system opted to shut
down until power is up to more people, he said.

Across from Johnson County High School, the Red Cross and the
Georgia Baptist Emergency Response Team were providing meals to
emergency workers, power company employees, victims and other
impacted by the storm. The crew of about 20 people from around the
state fed about 600 people for lunch Monday. But that was a breeze
compared to the crew’s previous experience in Hurricane Katrina.
The same crew fed 7,000 people in one day in that storm, said unit
director Bruce Poss. The team also had about another 20 people
working in the county on cleanup duty Monday.

“The Lord has just called me to do this and it is very
rewarding,” said Mary Wade of Thompson, who was helping dish out

Rosa Spikes, who lives just outside of Wrightsville, escaped
storm damage but was without power and didn’t have a way to cook,
she said, after getting a meal at the center.

“It feels good to have somebody who can help you when you are in
need,” she said.

Laurens County Sheriff Bill Harrell spent Monday going through
the damaged areas of his county and checking on people. Many people
were still without power, he said. He was cautioning people to
guard against con artists who crop up in disasters, offering to do
work with cash up front but then not returning.

“We’ve been trying to stress to make sure you don’t get
flim-flammed,” he said.

Jan Walker, who lives on Beaver Dam Road about a mile off Ga.
112 in Wilkinson County, has had to deal with damage to four houses
on her property. All of them were hit by trees. There’s
substantial roof damage, and siding on one of the houses buckled. A
portion of one roof blew about 100 yards away, she said. “It looks
like a war zone around here. I need help.”

Walker was in Kentucky when the storms blew through. “I came
home to a kitchen full of water,” she said.

Friends and family helped put tarps on the roofs and cleared
away debris as best they could, helping Walker’s daughter and
granddaughter, who also live on the property. Walker said 100 or
more trees may be down around her. A bulldozer was brought in to
help clear fallen trees off the dirt road leading to her home.

Walker has few neighbors. She lives about three miles from the
community of Stephensville, where tornado damage also was severe.
The town of Toomsboro is about six miles away.

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