Riding the storm out: GWCCA proves resilient after epic 2008 tornado

Ten years ago today, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s (GWCCA) downtown Atlanta campus faced one of its greatest challenges, and rallied in the face of adversity, highlighting the organization’s resolve and determined commitment to customer service and the community.

On the evening of March 14, 2008, with winds reaching 135 mph, an EF2 tornado ripped through downtown, with the trio of the GWCCA’s then-current facilities – the Georgia World Congress Center, Georgia Dome and Centennial Olympic Park – in its path of destruction.

The Authority literally weathered the storm.

Ten years removed, tornado damage to the now-defunct Dome is the most-well-known incident as the saga unfolded on live TV during the Southeastern Conference (SEC) men’s basketball tournament, as chronicled in the ESPN documentary, “SEC Storied: Miracle 3.” (Check out the trailer here.)

However, the 3.9-million-square-foot Georgia World Congress Center suffered rather extensive damage to all three of its buildings, forcing the cancellation, relocation and postponement of events, and Centennial Olympic Park was not spared from the wrath of Mother Nature either.

The total destruction to the GWCCA campus – which was closed for a week after the twister hit – tallied an estimated $80 million.

Aerial view of roof damage sustained at the Georgia World Congress Center from the 2008 tornado that hit downtown Atlanta.

But within a week-and-a-half, the Dome reopened for New Birth Missionary Baptist Church’s annual Easter Service, and the GWCC’s three buildings were back in business in phases – the earliest 10 days after the storm, the latest 42 days later, when the convention center became fully operational again. Five days after the storm, 16 of the park’s 21 acres reopened, and two weeks later the park hosted the ING Marathon and its 15,000 runners.

For 42 days and 42 nights, 1,100 trade workers logged 270,000 man hours, toiling in twice-a-day 12-hour shifts to get the GWCC up and running again. They replaced 370,000 square feet of acoustical ceiling tiles and 725,000 square feet of roofing, and repaired 100,000 square feet of building structure.   In addition, the GWCC suffered significant water damage, and 4,500 glass panes were damaged.

Thankfully no one was killed or seriously injured on the GWCCA campus, although minor injuries were reported.

The 2008 tornado aftermath at Centennial Olympic Park.

At Centennial Olympic Park, two of the Hermes light towers were toppled over by the storm, and various light posts and flag poles, gates, signage and landscaping were mangled, along with the framing of Southern Company Amphitheater.

There wasn’t much advanced warning when the tornado, stretching about 100 yards wide as it barreled through the GWCCA campus, made contact with the Georgia Dome’s iconic roof at 9:38 p.m. disrupting the SEC quarterfinal game between Alabama and Mississippi State, which had gone into overtime. The National Weather Service in Peachtree City issued a tornado warning approximately eight minutes before it hit.

Crimson Tide guard Mykal Riley sent the game into overtime with a long-range three-pointer, a miracle shot that may have saved many lives. Instead of heading outside of the venue where the storm was about to strike, some 30,000 fans stayed inside for the extra period.

“If he hadn’t hit that shot, we’d have been in bad trouble,” said GWCCA Engineering Services Manager Allen Bivens, who was an engineering supervisor at the Dome at that time and was going about his normal event-time business when disaster struck.

Fans reported seeing the large monitor over the court swinging back and forth and video footage shows Dome scaffolding swaying and the roof undulating, then debris began falling, and many in the crowd left their seats and huddled in the stadium concourses.

Bivens said after the shock wore off and the chaos subsided, the Dome crew steered patrons away from hazardous areas and immediately began assessing the situation, coming up with a plan of action.

And that can-do-attitude was prevalent Authority-wide as the full-blown recovery efforts kicked in.

“The general theme was, OK, it  happened. Instead of ‘oh, what do we do, what do we do?’ Everyone was focused on the task at hand,” said Bivens.  “And it didn’t matter who it was or what your job was, you pitched in and did whatever had to be done to host the next event.”

Looking back on the experience, Bivens said,  “it was challenging, but fun, too.”


“It was a fellowship time.  It was one big mass of people working together on a common goal to get to a common point. They all had the same agenda – they all wanted to succeed.”

And the Authority still had customers to serve, and a quick recovery was crucial to the city and its hospitality industry. Several high-stakes events were on the line at the convention center, including the International Window Coverings Expo, the National Propane Gas Association convention and AJC International Car Show – all which went on as planned.

Workers reconstruct the roof in the Building B lobby and Registration Hall area.

Reconstructing the GWCC also provided the opportunity to make some upgrades, including replacing and refurbishing more than 30 escalators, installing new overhead doors throughout the facility, new roofing designed to enhance energy efficiency, and new wall fabrics and ceiling tiles intended to improve acoustics and lighting.

Writing in the GWCCA’s 2009 annual report, then-executive director Dan Graveline found the silver lining, with some humor: “It was a hard way to do a renovation, but the months of work left our facilities looking better than ever.”