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Cleanup begins for damage from fatal storms

WRIGHTSVILLE - Scott Stephens heard the roaring wind and saw a broken limb soar over his pecan trees before dashing inside to shelter his wife and daughters in a closet, where they huddled praying in the dark.

Three minutes later it was over. The Sunday storm uprooted more than 20 of Stephens' pecan trees that were nearly a century old. It shoved the frame and roof of a 900-square-feet addition he was building to their home off its foundation. A toppled tree trunk squashed his pickup truck.

'I hadn't shed a tear in a long time, up until yesterday,' Stephens, 39, said Monday as he began cleaning up the debris littering his yard and pecan orchard in rural Johnson County.

Powerful storms that tore more than 300 miles across Georgia early Sunday - from Carroll County on the Alabama border to the coast south of Savannah - killed two people, damaged an estimated 6,000 homes, causing about $50 million in insured losses, and left more than 40,000 people still without electricity Monday.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared a state of emergency in 13 counties, making state resources available for response and recovery needs. They are: Bibb, Carroll, Clayton, Crawford, Douglas, Emanuel, Glynn, Jefferson, Jenkins, Johnson, Laurens, McIntosh and Twiggs counties.

The same storm system killed 21 people in Oklahoma and Missouri over the weekend. About 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service, and the season isn't over yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.

Johnson County, where 9,400 people live among small farms and vast acres of pine timber in central Georgia, was among six counties where the governor declared a state of emergency.

County officials estimated at least 12 houses, most of them mobile homes, had been destroyed. About 6,000 people here remained without electricity, and therefore no way to power the private wells that provide them with fresh water, said Doug Eaves, the Johnson County administrator.

Eaves estimated most county residents wouldn't have electricity restored until Wednesday or Thursday.

'We have a considerable need for potable water,' Eaves said. 'We're talking to the state about bringing in tankers for water we can use to flush toilets.'

The storm ripped the top off the water tower in Wrightsville, 170 miles southeast of Atlanta, halving the city's immediate water supply. The sheriff's department was still using generators Monday to power radios and computers. The emergency management director was temporarily sidelined cleaning up extensive damage to his own home.

Roadside crews with chainsaws and wood chippers worked Monday to clear debris from hundreds of pine trees that snapped like twigs. Hundreds more along the two-lane highways were bent noticeably to the east, marking the storm's path and direction.

Three people required treatment for injuries, none of them life-threatening, said Sheriff Rusty Oxford.

One of them, Keith Bryant, was trying to get his two stepdaughters out of their doublewide mobile home when a piece of flying debris struck him in the head. The storm lifted the home off its foundation of concrete blocks and sent it crashing to the ground in a mangled heap of wood, sheet metal and insulation about 20 feet away.

'The girls said it spun about five times and hit the ground hard,' said Pearl Oliver, 73, Bryant's mother-in-law. 'He said he doesn't remember. He was just walking.'

Bryant and the girls, who were unharmed, walked from the wreckage to Oliver's brick house next door. She said Bryant was recovering at a hospital in Augusta.

The National Weather Service said at least six of the storms produced tornadoes with winds between 120 and 130 miles per hour in areas such as Bibb, Clayton, Carroll and Laurens counties. It was surveying the damage in Johnson County on Monday to determine if a tornado had also touched down there.

In neighboring Laurens County, Coroner Richard Stanley III identified a man who died there as Tracy Clements, who was in his 40s. He was found dead in the wreckage of his mobile home. His wife was hospitalized in critical condition in Macon. Their two grandchildren were treated for minor injuries and released Sunday, Stanley said.

Astrid Hidalgo, 19, died in Gwinnett on Sunday afternoon after the top of a tree snapped in gusty winds and fell on her. She was dead at the scene when firefighters arrived, fire department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine estimated there were 6,000 homes damaged and $50 million in insured losses statewide.

Most of the 40,000 Georgia Power customers who remained without electricity Monday were in the Macon area, utility spokesman Jeff Wilson said. About 1,300 still had no power in metro Atlanta. He was unable to say when electricity would be restored.

'There's a lot of extensive damage,' said Oxford.