Rockdale marks 40 years since worst tornado in history

Barbara and Al Jones stand in the area of their former garden where the 1973 Rockdale tornado threw them after sucking them out of the Smyrna Road home. Barbara Jones displays the Rockdale Citizen front page from April 3, 1973, detailing the damage the twister inflicted on the county.

Barbara and Al Jones stand in the area of their former garden where the 1973 Rockdale tornado threw them after sucking them out of the Smyrna Road home. Barbara Jones displays the Rockdale Citizen front page from April 3, 1973, detailing the damage the twister inflicted on the county.


The 1973 Rockdale tornado leveled the Jones' home, leaving only the front porch steps.


This photo shows what the Jones' house looked like before the 1973 Rockdale tornado tore it apart. The young girl on the bike is Barbara and Al Jones' daughter Nancy.


The 1973 Rockdale tornado home reduced the Jones' home to rubble.

CONYERS -- On a cloudy, misty spring evening in 1973, Al Jones walked outside to pick up the evening newspaper and remarked, "There's a black cloud comin' our way. We're fixin' to have a storm."

His wife Barbara Jones took a look out the door of their home on Smyrna Road in Conyers and agreed.

"Somethin's comin'," she said.

Moments later, "the house started shaking. It sounded like a freight train," said the Jones' daughter, Joanne Jones Hooper, 14 at the time.

The family huddled in the den with sofa pillows over their heads. Joanne said the house collapsed on her family, as wind tore it apart.

"That's about when we lost consciousness," she said.

Joanne woke up in the family's freshly plowed garden 50 yards behind the house. She lay beside her mother, who had landed face down in the mud.

"I realized that she was making a noise and couldn't breathe, so I flipped her over and decided to get help," said Joanne, whose father and younger sister lay nearby.

Joanne asked for help from a neighbor who had survived by hiding under an oak dining room table, but the man wandered away, dazed. Finally, ambulances arrived and Joanne insisted they take her parents first. The next ambulance that came to transport her and her sister had a gaping hole in the roof where a tree had fallen on it and she remembers getting rained on as they traveled.

All four family members survived, though the Rockdale Citizen newspaper erroneously reported Barbara Jones dead two days after the storm.

The Jones' story is but one of most likely hundreds spawned from a tornado that has remained as the only one to hit Rockdale County in the past four decades.

March 31 marked the 40th anniversary of the twister which cut a 32-mile swath of destruction that passed through the western and northern edge of Conyers.

"The twister touched down in a residential area around Klondike Road in southern Rockdale, jumped I-20 and plowed through the industrial park before turning slightly eastward into several more subdivisions in the county," reported the April 3, 1973, edition of the Rockdale Citizen.

The tornado hit Rockdale at about 6 p.m., said Conyers native and local historian Harriet Gattis, who lived with her parents on Milstead Avenue at the time.

"My mother called me to the living room to see the tall Georgia pines in their front yard bent almost to the ground with blinding rain falling in every direction. I also remember hearing what sounded like the roar of a freight train passing overhead. Minutes later there were sirens screaming in the distance from what we thought to be College Avenue," said Gattis, whose father, Dr. Joe Brown, rushed off to the hospital shortly afterward to tend to the arrival of casualties.

Though the Jones' lived through their ordeal, they suffered serious injuries. Both Al and Barbara Jones sustained head injuries and remained in comas for weeks. Barbara Jones had collapsed lungs and ruptured almost every major organ.

A broken hip, followed by an infection kept Joanne Jones in the hospital for weeks. Her younger sister had a broken arm and ribs and stayed with relatives and friends while the rest of her family recuperated in a DeKalb hospital.

A report by the National Weather Service set losses in Rockdale County at $75 million, with 280 homes damaged, 85 houses destroyed and 450 people left homeless. The tornado leveled 20 businesses including Lithonia Lighting, Miller Brothers, Contact Slacks and Bullock Manufacturing Co.

The twister also snapped power lines, leaving residents without electricity for several days.

Former Rockdale County Fire Chief Tommy Morgan, who served as volunteer fire chief for the city of Conyers at the time, remembers leaving his Lake Capri home in north Rockdale County after being called to help with the tornado damage.

Downed trees and wires blocked his path, though he eventually made it to the city. He recalled finding one storm victim, Stewart Eskew, wandering down the street in shock. Eskew had crawled from beneath the rubble of his home on Industrial Boulevard.

The late Eskew wrote an account of his experience in "A History of Rockdale County." He realized the tornado was bearing down on him when the windows blew out of his house.

"I was praying as I dived behind a high back chair near the wall and when I came to myself, the sun was shining. The main joist across the room by the chimney was on the TV I had just left. The chimney fell across the door I had just come through. Some of the rock was touching me, so I had to crawl over the rocks and through the timber to get into the kitchen. The west and north walls were gone and all the loose things were sucked out of the kitchen," he wrote.

Despite the extensive destruction, Rockdale County suffered no casualties, though the tornado killed two people as it traveled a 75-mile northeast path through the cities of Jonesboro, Conyers, Monroe and Athens.

Then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter visited Conyers, the hardest hit, hours after the tornado to survey the damage, and to supply the county hospital with an extra generator.

"It's a miracle no more people were killed," said Carter in an April 3, 1973, edition of the Rockdale Citizen. "It was the worst natural disaster to hit the state."

Aid for displaced families came in the form of food and clothing distributed from Conyers Presbyterian Church and the Milstead Recreation Center. The state provided an emergency 24-unit trailer park on Irwin Bridge Road for the homeless.

The Jones family received a trailer on their property while they rebuilt their house. They insisted on a basement for their new home, though builders warned them that it would leak. The Jones' have used that basement a few times, during bad weather.

Joanne Jones, who works as a nurse at the Newton County Health Department, said the tornado used to give her nightmares, but the bad dreams have subsided over the years.

"After going through that, I wasn't as scared of things," she said. "I don't know if that means you have to live life to the fullest, (but) you only live once and it may not be until tomorrow, so you do what you have to do and get it done."


ClaytonBigsby 2 years, 7 months ago

I was 4 years old but still remember it. It seems like there were sheets of tin roofing everywhere! Thanks for an interesting story here, Citizen.


eddieshirey 2 years, 7 months ago

The tornado raked across my parents property on Klondike Road. The homes of the Four Season's Subdivision were scattered across my parent's place. I remember the shingles, lumber, insulation and Christmas decorations (from folk's attics I assume). It was an awe inspiring mess.

Governor Jimmy Carter came immediately by helicopter (landing in our yard) to see the devastation and assure help from the State.

The morning of the tornado I had lost my checkbook while riding my motorcycle in what was to become the tornado's path. 2 weeks after the tornado I got a call from a man in Jefferson Ga. He found my checkbook in his yard.

I remember the generosity of our community's unaffected neighbors helping those that had lost so much.


twoambers 2 years, 7 months ago

I was 7, and remember being at my Grandparents while my folks shopped at Elmore's. I can remember looking out their kitchen window, and seeing shrub bushes being pushed to the ground. The sign by the gas station next to Elmore's was bent over and touching the ground. One interesting note about this, Dr. Fujita, whom the F Scale is named for, flew over and submitted the damage reports over the next week.


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