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Downtown Atlanta Continues Cleaning Up After Tornado

Fri March 21, 2008 - Southeast Edition

ATLANTA (AP) As traffic jams eased, crews continued to clean up debris and glass March 18 from downtown Atlanta and officials asked the federal government to provide aid quickly to help the city recover from the tornado that ripped through its core.

Tourism officials still have no estimates on how long it will take to repair the city’s largest convention venue — the Georgia World Congress Center — which was damaged significantly in the March 14 storm, center spokeswoman Katy Pando said. All events scheduled at the 3.9 million sq. ft. center the week following the storm were either canceled, postponed or moved to another location in the city, she said.

The tornado ripped through the roof of an exhibition hall in one building of the World Congress Center, leaving light fixtures, awnings, and pieces of the building’s infrastructure dangling and exposed. Pando said repairs were to begin by the end of March.

Meanwhile, Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss urged President Bush to speed up the process for declaring Atlanta a federal disaster area. Gov. Sonny Perdue has said he’s asked for an expedited process so that residents and businesses can get help with debris removal and recovery.

“There are certainly many areas that are going to need a helping hand, and it is imperative that the president approve this request so our communities can begin the rebuilding process,” Chambliss said in a joint statement with Isakson.

Atlanta tourism officials are scrambling to find other locations for major conventions and meetings scheduled for the World Congress Center. So far, no upcoming conventions have decided to move to another city, said Mark Vaughan of the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“Our goal is we’re going to find a home for everybody,” he said.

The Omni Hotel, which closed about half of its 1,100 rooms because of storm damage, plans to have the entire hotel open again by April 1, marketing manager Mike Sullivan said.

A maze of closed roads downtown turned 20-minute commutes into hours on the road March 17, but most of those streets were open the next day, said Atlanta Police Department spokeswoman Judy Pal. Georgia Department of Transportation officials said traffic patterns were basically normal on March 18 with the usual backups during morning rush hour.

A few streets remained closed as crews repaired damaged buildings downtown and in the nearby neighborhood known as Cabbagetown, Pal said.

Weather officials have confirmed nine separate tornadoes hit the state, killing two people, injuring at least 27 and knocking the power out to most of the city of Savannah for hours. Straight-line winds from the spate of severe storms also caused downed trees, power outages and damaged homes across the state, said Kent McMullen of the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

The storms are the costliest in the state’s history, racking up at least $250 million in damages, state officials said.

Another twister struck a Georgia Power transmission station in Effingham County north of Savannah, causing a black out in the middle of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend celebration.

The March 14 tornado, which cut a 6-mi. path moving along the Atlanta skyline for about 20 minutes, was the first ever to hit downtown Atlanta.

In Fort Worth, Texas, where a tornado struck downtown in 2000, the city took six to eight months to rebound in terms of people visiting the city’s central district, said Marilyn Gilbert of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. In the weeks following the storm, the city launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign with ads proclaiming “No gusts, no glory” and “You can’t judge a town by its plywood.”

The one glaring reminder of the tornado — the 37-story Bank One tower — stood empty with most of its 3,540 windows boarded for five years until it was converted from offices into a high-rise apartment building in 2005, Gilbert said.

“You can only imagine sitting here looking at this crackhouse on steroids every year,” Gilbert said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Unlike Atlanta, Fort Worth’s tourism infrastructure was largely untouched by the twister.

Atlanta officials aren’t sure how long repairs to downtown structures will take but all buildings damaged by the storm are either already partially open or have plans to reopen soon.

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