I went to the Georgia Dome tonight for the SEC basketball tournament. I caught up with a good friend who’s on UK’s faculty to watch both games, but the weather had different plans.
The Mississippi State vs. Alabama game went to overtime. The Kentucky fans (a majority of the attendees) seemed quite excited for overtime even though they weren’t even playing, so I thought little of it when I heard what I thought was the UK fans loudly stomping their feet. Until it became evident that it wasn’t them… it was too loud.
Looking beyond the UK fans, I could actually see the fabric of the roof of the Dome shaking in the wind. I’ve been in the dome before for storms, and the fabric has never moved. One of the advertising banners near the roof tore, pieces insulation started visibly blowing through the air of the dome, the scoreboard and partitions hanging from the ceiling were swaying widely, and the stomping noise got louder. At this point, we decided that being underneath the steel and fabric roof was a bad idea, and were among the first wave of people to head for the concourse.
This was the edgiest part of the evening. The aisles began filling up, people were becoming impatient with the slow walk up to the concourse, and the train-like sound of a tornado grew louder. Here, there was a major possibility of a Cloverfield moment – like some monster was about to peel back the roof of the dome, screech, and create mass hysteria. But simpler than that, if the power had flickered or gone out, if a larger tear had opened in the roof, I think chaos would have erupted. It was a nervous and tense moment that could have taken a very bad turn. After this, the stories began to circulate and we looked at visible damage. One person almost got hit with a bolt that fell from the ceiling. One security guard saw a rotating storm, another saw a woman who was outside slammed into the building by the wind. There was an obvious hole in the roof of the Dome.
After lots of waiting, they somehow managed to finish out the Mississippi State game, and they decided to wait to start the second game. Overall, their crisis plan needed a LOT of work. Via my phone, I learned there were ongoing tornado and severe weather warnings, but they left people in their seats rather than requiring them to move to the more sheltered concourses. They provided very infrequent updates. They kept telling everyone to stay around, and then suddenly announced that the Dome would close in 15 minutes. They also postponed the second game just when all of the storm threats were subsiding.
The walk back to my car proved to me that a tornado was almost certainly the culprit. The damage was extreme, but localized to very narrow areas. We saw pieces of insulation surrounding the outside of the dome, and what appeared to be random structural pieces of the dome. Insulation was blown so fast that it severed halves of shrubs. Metal barricades were bent as they blew over. Branches and plywood were sheared.
The most convincing evidence was on the Northside Drive side of the Dome. Just below the roof of the dome were 2 sections where the exterior paneling was ripped off. The insulation was gone, and torn banners were visible. There were effectively 2 huge breaches directly to the interior of the dome, which explained why is was so drafty after the initial hit, and why they were reluctant to resume games if more bad weather was coming. Large metal monument signs had been wrestled to the ground, twisted and wrested from their foundations. Power poles and trees were toppled like twigs.
The Georgia World Congress Center may have sustained some of the worst damage. LOTS of windows on the west side of the building were shattered. Water pipes were broken and spewing water, and fire sprinklers appeared to be running as well. News reports showed that this caused flooding in the building, and I’m sure this will require major repairs.
My car was frighteningly close to the path of destruction, but appears to be fine.
What a night! I’m exhausted, and glad to be safe through this experience, which will also be another intriguing memory with a great friend.