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Cairo, Georgia, tornado: Town picks up pieces

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The death toll is expected to rise as authorities continue recovery efforts in Lee County, Alabama, after the deadliest tornado outbreak in years.
USA TODAY

CAIRO, Ga. – Ellen White was having a quiet evening at home when a tornado warning went off on her cellphone and the siren started sounding at the fire department three blocks away.

As the winds whipped up she went to the safest place she could think of — the fireplace in her dining room — and grabbed hold of the mantle for dear life.

“I could feel the whole house just shaking as I prayed,” she said. “I could hear things banging, things falling. It didn’t last two minutes. For those two minutes, it was very, very scary.”

The tornado ripped the metal roof off her two-story clapboard house, built in the 1870s, sent massive oak and magnolia limbs crashing in the yard and flattened her white picket fence. About a block away, it wrecked the top story and metal roof of another historic home she owns, the Powell House.

Her son, Tim White, a special education teacher in Thomasville, Georgia, was planning to move into the other house soon and had been there painting earlier Sunday. After seeing the extent of the damage Monday morning and searching for some post-storm levity, he used debris to make a sign saying, “Historic home for sale minor roof damage.”

“Humor runs in our family,” said White, who divides his time between Thomasville and Cairo and isn’t actually planning to sell the house. “I’ve got another home to go to. I’m fortunate.”

March 4: ‘Everything’s gone’: Stunned Alabama searches for missing after tornado kills 23

March 4: Deadly tornadoes smash through Alabama, Southeast: What we know now

The tornado was part of a storm system that tore through the South on Sunday night, causing widespread damage and killing nearly two dozen people.

In Cairo, the tornado damaged dozens of homes and businesses around the downtown area, knocking down trees, street lights and power poles and littering the Broad Street shopping district with twisted pieces of tin and other debris.

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Unlike in Alabama, where more than 20 people were killed, there were no reports of serious injury or death in Cairo.

Jerry Cox, a Cairo City Council member, said officials are asking people to quit sightseeing and to stay out of damaged areas unless they live there.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “We’re cleaning up. We’re trying to get power back when we can. But right now, safety is our priority.”

At the Cairo IGA, customers and employees tried to make it to a back room for safety as the tornado approached, said Gabriel Lewis, the closing manager. But they couldn’t quite make it before the storm hit and found themselves huddling together in an aisle in the middle of the store.

The tornado ripped off part of the roof and sheared the bricks off one exterior wall. Lewis said he tried to calm panicked customers and employees.

“There was a bunch of rumbling,” he said. “You could feel the building shaking. There was a bunch of wind blowing in the doors. They say the winds were clocked at 113 mph, so it was really rough.”

Jeff Hendricks, owner of the IGA, said he hopes to reopen in about 10 days. In the meantime, he said the store will distribute food to first responders and storm victims, something the store did after Hurricane Michael.

“We’ve got to make the best out of a bad situation,” said IGA district manager Charles Hanks.

Follow Jennifer Portman on Twitter: @jmportman

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