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Deep South digs out after devastating tornadoes leave at least 20 dead

Deep South digs out after devastating tornadoes leave at least 20 dead
A rescue worker inspects a mobile home destroyed by a tornado in Albany, Ga. (Branden Camp / Associated Press)

One by one, they trampled over the muddy grass, clambering over smashed pine trees and ducking under downed power lines. Weaving past huge piles of mangled metal — taking care not to stumble over frying pans, brooms and microwaves — they tried to reach the wreckage of their shredded homes.

"It looks like an atomic bomb went off," Nathan Mahan, 62, said as he carried two black garbage bags full of clothes out of what remained of his destroyed white single-wide trailer at the Big Pine Estates mobile home park.

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Mahan, a disabled former loom operator who lived with his wife on Lot 212, was lucky: He made it from his bedroom to the bathroom just before a tornado tore through the park Sunday afternoon, crashing pine trees through the roof and onto the bed, busting out windows and slashing holes in the walls.

He still trembled Monday as he hauled his belongings in the drizzling rain.

"We're going to need some help," he said quietly as he scanned the neighborhood where he's lived the last 17 years. Many of the trailers no longer had walls. Those still standing had been marked with large orange crosses — a sign rescue teams use to identify homes that have been checked for survivors.

Nathan Mahan carries clothes from his destroyed home.
Nathan Mahan carries clothes from his destroyed home. (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

At least 20 people have been killed — 15 of them in south Georgia — after a cluster of violent tornadoes churned across the Deep South. Some of the heaviest damage was in and around Albany, a city of 75,000 people about 170 miles south of Atlanta that was still reeling from a powerful Jan. 2 storm that spawned several tornadoes.

Officials have confirmed four deaths here and warn that the number is likely to rise. At a Monday news conference, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said he had just gotten a call about a 2-year-old who had been swept away in the tornado.

"We have a lot of people that have been separated from their families," he said, "that have no homes, no food, no warmth and no hope."

The storm slashed through the southern outskirts of the city just after 3 p.m. Sunday, pounding warehouses and pecan orchards. It ripped the steeple off the Living Waters Church of God. It pulled the roof off the Flash Foods gas station. It struck down power lines, traffic lights and highway signs.

At Big Pine Estates, high winds crashed towering trees onto trailer homes, flipping them over and flinging their contents into the mud.

As soon as she heard a whistling sound, Enola Posey, 31, a stay-at-home mother, grabbed her son and ran into the hallway.

"The tornado was sucking me up," Posey said. "My uncle grabbed me and laid on top of me. Me and my family came off the floor, our house did a 360 in the air and turned us around and threw us back on the ground."

Just as the roof started to lift up, Posey said, a tree crashed down, pushing the roof back onto the trailer.

"When I walked outside, my friends were everywhere and I was pulling people out of the wreckage, bandaging them up."

Earlier Sunday, near the Georgia-Florida line, seven people were killed in Cook County, Ga., when a tornado ripped through the Sunshine Acres mobile home park, destroying many of its structures. Pink fiberglass insulation clung to downed power lines. Blankets dangled from pine trees.

Two more fatalities were confirmed Sunday in Berrien County, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. And in Brooks County, a husband and wife were killed after a tornado picked up their mobile home.

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Four people were reported dead in Mississippi and one in Florida. Those number also may climb, officials said.

At the Big Pine Estates in Albany, emergency workers wearing hard hats worked with chainsaws, wheelbarrows and forklifts. Residents were told not to enter, but some managed to find a way inside, hauling out pets, suitcases and boxes.

Camesha Williams, 23, picked through the rubble with her husband and sister-in-law, hoping to locate her children's clothes, shoes and socks.

"Y'all need to get back," an emergency worker yelled, forcing them to turn around.

Outside the trailer park, a steady stream of residents walked up and down the two-lane road with a flurry of questions: When would they be allowed inside? Could they look for their pets? How could they stop people from stealing what was left of their possessions?

Terrence Byrd, a 32-year-old equipment operator who lived in Lot 125 with his mom, had managed to collect a plastic bag full of his mom's prescription medicine. Still, he lingered, waiting to hear from animal control about his two missing pit bulls, Diamond and Bella.

Random fights broke out as estranged family members hauled contested belongings, even pets, from the wreckage. Yet for the most part, the community was steeped in charity and goodwill. Scores of people who lived nearby arrived with clothes and blankets, and church volunteers handed out cookies, pizza slices and bottles of water.

Shannon Raynor, a 39-year-old cook at Olive Garden, clutched her 1-year-old grandchild tight to her chest as she peered into the mobile home park. She left her single-wide just before the storm hit, and said at least two of her neighbors died and another was in the hospital.

Though Raynor wanted to get back home to retrieve her mom's ashes and family photos, she understood why officials wouldn't let her inside.

"It's a safety thing," she said. "This is like a war zone. All we have is the clothes on our backs."

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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