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After tornado, Atlanta officials assess damage

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Posted: March 17, 2008 8:57 p.m.
Updated: April 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
After tornado, Atlanta officials assess damage

Betty Yarbrough receives a hug from Eric Brumbelow on Sunday March 16, 2008 outside of what is left of Yarbrough's family home on Old Wax Road just south of Rome, Georgia after a tornado blew the house to pieces the previous day.

       ATLANTA — With most of the city’s downtown tourism infrastructure damaged by a tornado, officials are scrambling to make sure no upcoming conventions move to other cities.       

    So far, no events scheduled for downtown Atlanta have canceled despite hundreds of hotel rooms being out of commission and significant damage to the city’s largest convention venue, the Georgia World Congress Center, said Spurgeon Richardson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.      

    ‘‘We are open for business,’’ Richardson said, a phrase that turned into a mantra for the tourism officials speaking during a news conference at the CVB’s headquarters downtown.      

    This coming weekend, a volleyball tournament expected to bring 38,000 people to Atlanta will likely be scattered at venues throughout the metro area instead of concentrated at the World Congress Center as planned, officials said.  

    The Omni Hotel, which lost nearly 500 rooms when a tornado ripped through downtown Friday night, is hosting a 600-person U.S. Department of Energy conference this week, said Mike Sullivan, marketing director for the hotel. World Congress Center officials expected to have a damage estimate for the 3.9 million square-foot facility later Monday afternoon.    

    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. On Monday, workers continued to clear the scattered insulation, metal, glass and other debris littering the facility.       

    There is enough undamaged space at the center to house most of the upcoming conventions, said Mark Zimmerman, general manager. A floor-covering expo is expected to bring 8,000 attendees, and the National Propane Gas Association meeting is expected to draw 5,000 people, according to the CVB’s Web site.        

     At least 27 people were hurt but no deaths reported in the tornado that swept through Friday night. Two people were killed in northwest Georgia when a separate storm moved through Saturday.  

    Jerry Paul Albers, 71, was killed by flying debris, Floyd County Coroner Barry Henderson said. In Polk County, Bonnie Gene Turner, 63, was killed when a tornado demolished her home and threw her and her husband into a field, Coroner Trey Litesey said. Her husband survived and is in critical condition at Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga, hospital spokeswoman Sharon Cahill said.    

    Statewide, the damage was about $250 million, making the storms the most expensive in Georgia history, John Oxendine, commissioner of insurance and safety fire for the state, said Monday afternoon after visiting northwest Georgia counties and walking around Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood.  

    Saturday’s tornado ripped a 13-mile path through Polk, Floyd and Bartow counties on the Georgia-Alabama border, while Friday’s storm collapsed four floors of a loft apartment building and toppled trees onto houses in Cabbagetown.  

    In Atlanta, cleaning up the shattered glass, torn roofs and debris-littered streets of downtown will be a much quicker task than repairing the financial damage caused by the tornado, state officials said Sunday.    

    Several landmarks, including the Georgia World Congress Center, the Westin Peachtree Plaza and the Equitable Building, were in the six-mile path of the storm, which moved along the Atlanta skyline for about 20 minutes.     

    With the closing of the Georgia World Congress Center — a 3.9 million square-foot convention center — the city lost the Atlanta Home Show and a dental convention going on last weekend. And the Georgia Dome lost much of the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament.  

    The games were moved to north of downtown to Georgia Tech’s much smaller gym on Saturday, preventing many fans from attending because of space constraints. The SEC is making plans to give refunds to fans unable to get into the tournament games, according to a statement on the conference’s Web site. The plan could cost the conference about $1.8 million in revenue.  

     Dental convention attendees gathered in Centennial Olympic Park across from the World Congress Center on Monday waiting to be let into the center to clean out their exhibitions. Some were frustrated that so little information was given to them on when they could shutter the show and ship it to the next city.  

     ‘‘They haven’t given us anything as far as a timetable is concerned,’’ said Annette Bertram of Dexus Digital X-Ray.    

    The shows are required to have their own insurance to hold an event at the center, so the World Congress Center is only responsible for damage to the building and not the property inside, officials said.    

    Tourism officials were relieved that attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola emerged unscathed after the tornado.     

    Some tourists weren’t even aware there had been a storm until they checked into their hotels this weekend.     

     ‘‘We’re hoping to see a little bit of something we don’t normally see,’’ Frank Kennedy, who is in town with his wife, Jean, visiting from Dublin, Ireland, said about the tornado damage.      

     The pair’s home country doesn’t have tornadoes, so the broken windows, blocked streets and topple billboards and trees downtown are somewhat of a novelty for them, he said.   

    Commuters to downtown Atlanta were encouraged to stay home Monday as cleanup in the area continued. Many streets were closed and some traffic lights remained out.     

    On their lunch breaks, employees of downtown businesses navigated sidewalks blocked by yellow caution tape and gawked at the holes in windows on many of the tall buildings downtown. Broken glass still littered the ground and police warned pedestrians to watch for glass and other debris that could fall from buildings.

     ‘‘I could have walked faster,’’ said Kendra Wright, 22, an office manager downtown whose 20 minute commute took an hour. ‘‘I just hope it’s not this bad going home.’’

    The city’s hotels are working to find space to house conventions that might otherwise have gone to the World Congress Center, said Ed Walls, general manager of the Westin Peachtree Hotel, which was damaged by the storm.    

    Walls estimated that about 30 percent of the hotel’s business came from events related to the facility, and that the first four months are among the busiest of the year for conventions in Atlanta.   

     ‘‘It’s a work in progress right now,’’ he said during a news conference, flanked by the city’s tourism officials. ‘‘There is no question that the World Congress Center is an important component, but there are alternatives.’’

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