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Atlanta drops the ball during surprise tornado.

While this season's Southeastern Conference (SEC) men's college basketball tournament proved to be especially exciting, one of its games stands out from the rest. During the second round of the tournament, which was played in Atlanta's Georgia Dome stadium, Alabama trailed Mississippi State until Alabama guard Mykal Riley sunk a last-second three-pointer to send the game into overtime. But that's not the exciting part.

With 2:11 left in OT, a tornado hit the stadium, tearing holes in two of the roof's cloth panels and sending bolts and washers from the ceiling to the floor and stands. Pieces of loose insulation floated through the air while fans scrambled for cover and the players escaped to the safety of their locker rooms. Stadium security managed to quell panic from fans in the upper deck while the PA announced that a severe storm was underway and that everyone should remain calm.

The tornado turned out to be an EF2 twister with wind gusts reaching 130 mph. A storm of that magnitude can lift cars off the ground, tear the roofs off houses, destroy mobile homes, uproot large trees and turn lightweight objects into deadly projectiles.

By the time the winds subsided, the tornado had carved a six-mile path of destruction through the heart of downtown Atlanta. Both the Georgia Dome and the neighboring Philips Arena-which was hosting an Atlanta Hawks NBA game when the storm hit--were damaged. In total, the twister and other severe windstorms killed two, injured at least 27 and caused nearly $200 million in damage.

Tornadoes in Georgia are nothing new. The state is the last stop in the infamous "Tornado Alley" and the metro Atlanta area is increasingly hit by storms as urban sprawl continues to expand. Between 1950 and 2006, the counties in and around the metro Atlanta area are among the state's most frequently hit by tornadoes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The trend is expected to extend to other nearby counties as well as once-rural communities are transformed into developed, suburban neighborhoods. The frequency of tornado strikes might be the same, but the areas at risk are increasing.

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It seems particularly puzzling, then, that no one in the Georgia Dome stands received warning that a tornado was approaching. The downtown area gave a tornado warning nearly 20 minutes before the stadium was hit. The only warning fans received was through their cell phones--if at all.

The damage to the stadium ended its ability to host further games, and lacking a contingency plan, the SEC had to scramble to find another venue. The nearby Philips Arena was an obvious choice but was also damaged, so the SEC contacted Georgia Tech and commissioned Alexander Memorial Coliseum on its campus. Since this much smaller arena could only hold 9,000 spectators, however, nearly half of the ticket holders for additional games would not be able to go. Rather than deal with the inevitable mess of figuring out a way to allot new tickets fairly, the SEC made the decision to only allow staff, bands, cheerleaders, and friends and family of the players and coaches to attend.

The lack of preparation has raised criticism against the Georgia Dome and the SEC, both of which lacked a crisis plan for games in March, one of Georgia's most tornado-prone months.

As for the game so dramatically interrupted by the "Tourney Twister," it resumed after an hour delay. Trailing again at the end of OT, Riley tried another desperation three-point shot, but this time, he missed. Although defeated, Riley could take solace in the fact that his earlier shot might have saved more than just his team's championship dreams. Had the game not gone into overtime, the nearly 18,000 people watching it would have been outside when the tornado hit. Given the amount of shattered glass and debris in the area after the storm, this may be one instance where the cliche "last-second heroics" actually applies.
Most Tornadoes in Georgia
(1950-2006)

County Number

Colquitt 28
Cobb 26
Worth 25
Hall 24
Mitchell 23
Chatham 22
Decatur 22
Fulton 22

Source: NOAA
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Title Annotation:Forefront
Comment:Atlanta drops the ball during surprise tornado.(Forefront)
Author:Coffin, Bill
Publication:Risk Management
Geographic Code:1U5GA
Date:May 1, 2008
Words:686
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