'It hit like a B-2 bomb raid,' says sheriff of violent storm

There is widespread damage across northern Middle Georgia according to the preliminary storm report from the National Weather Service following severe thunderstorms that included tornado warnings and watches throughout Wednesday evening.

A Hancock County man, Johnny Frank Baker, died late Wednesday by a possible tornado at about 10:40 p.m. Baker, believed to be in his 60s, was killed when he and three other family members were blown out of their mobile home across from the Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which was also destroyed in the storm. Lakesia Baker, Johnny Baker's daughter, and one of her two children were airlifted to an Atlanta hospital with serious injuries.

While the National Weather Service is gathering evidence, the debris field is consistent with tornadoes.

An apparent tornado skipped across Putnam County demolishing two businesses and downing major power transmission lines at about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday. One person was hurt by flying debris from the storm that caused significant damage from Willard to Eatonton.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said he is certain a twister is responsible for leveling the Westside Drive nightclub on Glenwood Spring Road where owner Robert Parham rode out the storm under the bar. Patron Martrel Williams said he ducked under a pool table as soon as he heard rocks hitting the cinderblock building. The force of the winds lifted him slightly off the floor but he survived with a few minor scratches.

"I'm blessed," Williams said as he returned to the piles of rubble left in the storm's wake.

"I mean it hit like a B-2 bomb raid," the sheriff said of the damage to Parham's nightclub. "I don't know how it didn't kill him."

The roof was ripped off of Parham's house next door to the club and rescuers had to kick open the door that was slightly out of frame to get people out, Sills said.

The storm then hit the power lines next the Wal-mart on U.S. 129, also known as the Gray Highway. Sills praised utility workers who were able to restring the major transmission line within hours.

"Tri-County EMC and Georgia Power did some amazing work last night," he said. "I was impressed by both."

At a region basketball tournament at Putnam County High School shortly after 7:30 p.m., the gymnasium was evacuated and people were moved into the hallways outside the school's gym and cafeteria. With six deputies already in place at the basketball tournament at Putnam County High School, Sills said the evacuation went smoothly.

Sandra Parham, Robert Parham's daughter-in-law, was at the game when players, cheerleaders and spectators were told to go to safety. She said the experience was terrifying and some of the students were in tears.

The gym was not damaged but the tournament was halted due to power outages. The tournament was postponed until today. Two games will need to be completed beginning at 5 p.m.

While trees were downed along the path, the twister appeared to touch back down across U.S. 441 at the Headhunter Motor Club drag strip. The cinderblock tower at the strip was leveled and about six other buildings were torn apart.

The Georgia Department of Transportation reported Ga. 44 was blocked by debris from mile post 1 to mile post 10. It expected to clear the road by 10 a.m.

In Warner Robins, a potentially devastating funnel cloud had mercy on Robins Air Force Base. The twister, wrapped in rain and high winds, sailed over Russell Parkway, a major east-west corridor in Warner Robins, crossed Ga. 247 then entered the central part of the base.

Base officials used satellite imagery and Doppler radar to chart the course of the unusual front, issuing a severe weather watch early in the afternoon then a tornado warning before the storm loomed overhead.

Both Roddy Nixon, an aviation meteorologist on base, and Tech. Sgt. Brad Godwin saw the funnel cloud over the base. Godwin is the senior enlisted leader for the 78th Operational Support Squadron’s weather flight.

“It was wrapped in an extensive rain shield that made it hard to see,” reported Nixon. “But as it moved east across the base and into the wildlife refuge, the tornado became much more evident. The funnel extended down into the tree line in the wildlife area and that is considered a touchdown.”

No on-base damage was reported. Houston and Peach County officials both reported no tornado sightings or property impacts. One Robins contractor employee working on the flightline suffered minor injuries from what was believed to be a shattered, plastic crate lid.

In Oconee County, hundreds of trees are down at the Georgia Nature Center after a possible tornado caused significant damage on U.S. 441 near mile marker 3 at Tappin Spur Road. Several homes were damaged and a mobile home was blown off its foundation in a damage path estimated to be about a third of a mile wide.

In Fort Valley, hail measuring 1.75 inches was reported and golf ball-sized hall was reported at U.S. 341 and the Ga. 49 bypass in Peach County. Three-quarter inch hail was also reported in Bibb and Wilkinson counties with a severe thunderstorm that moved through around midnight and prompted a severe thunderstorm warning.

In north Macon, strong gusts of wind downed power lines and tree limbs, and caused minor car wrecks.

Wednesday night, National Weather Service meteorologist Shirley Lamback said tornado warnings remained in effect until 7:30 p.m. in southern Wilkinson County, northern Laurens County, northeastern Bleckley County and eastern and central Twiggs County. A tornado watch including all of the midstate was in effect from midafternoon Wednesday to 5 a.m. this morning. By 9:45 p.m., the Weather Service had no reports of tornado sightings in the region.

Staff writers Liz Fabian, Chuck Thompson, Gene Rector, Ashley Tusan Joyner and Jonathan Heeter contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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