On the evening of March 1, severe thunderstorms rumbled over southwestern Georgia, spawning a tornado that ripped through seven counties. Classified an EF 3 with winds ranging from approximately 136 to 165 miles per hour, the twister tore a path of destruction 37 miles long and as much as a mile wide, reaching its maximum strength and width as it reached Americus, the seat of Sumter county. Along the way, the Sumter tornado—part of a storm system that killed eight in a high school in Enterprise, Ala.—demolished or seriously damaged more than 200 homes and dozens of businesses in Americus and the surrounding area, causing two deaths and many more injuries.
Not only did it leave the local Winn-Dixie grocery store without its façade, but it also reduced a 1,600-foot-tall public television tower to a 150-foot stump, sheared the tops off trees, downed power lines, knocked out telephone service, and deposited a burning tractor in the middle of Highway 520.
More important, it destroyed Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, a rural city of 17,000 residents. Thanks to Sumter Regional’s staff, including its four hospitalists, all 70 patients were evacuated from the 265,000-square-foot, 143-bed complex.
The Terror Begins
The tornado, which struck Americus between 9 and 9:30 p.m., did not arrive without warning—but the town did not sound its tornado siren. A firefighter dispatched to activate the warning was called back because it was too late to do any good. Sumter Regional’s staff was alerted a tornado might strike, and they had moved patients away from the windows.
Hospitalist Mukesh Kumar, MD, who had joined Sumter Regional two weeks before the tornado struck, rode the storm out in the hospitalists’ office—a small space on the same corridor with a number of patient rooms.
“[Dr. Kumar] was the poor guy on duty that night,” says Amanda Davis, MD, head of the hospitalist program, who was not in town that evening.
As soon as the storm passed, an emergency call went out via the local broadcast media, requesting that physicians and nurses report to the severely damaged hospital to aid in the evacuation and treat the injured.
Hospitalists Kathy Hudson, MD, and Rick Oster, MD, among others, rushed to help. Getting to the hospital wasn’t easy. The surrounding area had become a maze of downed trees and power lines. First responders who could use their cars had to park outside the devastated area and hike to the hospital in the dark. Others arrived on bicycles. Some could not make it because they were trapped in their driveways.
With the power out at the tornado-ravaged hospital, as it was in much of Americus, first responders helped those on duty carry many of the 70 patients down the stairs of the four-story complex. Outside, Dr. Hudson worked with the staff, suturing the injured. Sumter Regional Hospital was evacuated by about 1:30 the following morning.
Patients were loaded into the town’s four ambulances and others from around the region and transferred to facilities in southwest Georgia. The closest of these was Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, about 40 miles from Americus.
Wind and water had compromised nearly every part of Sumter Regional, leaving only the chapel intact. Much of the roof was ripped off, nearly all the windows were blown out, and part of the complex collapsed. Damage was so severe the entire health center was rendered unsafe.