published Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Tornado cleanup: Gordon, Bartow residents begin to look ahead

Wrecked homes are seen from the tornado that moved through Gordon County, Ga.
Wrecked homes are seen from the tornado that moved through Gordon County, Ga.
Photo by Tim Barber.
DISASTER ASSISTANCE

Gordon County

• Sonoraville Community/Recreation Center, 7494 Fairmount Highway SE, Calhoun, GA 30701

• Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays (Closed Sundays). Closed Monday, Feb. 18 in observance of Presidents Day

Bartow County

• North Bartow Community Service Center, 2397 Hall Station Road, Adairsville, GA 30103

• Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays (Closed Sundays). Closed Monday, Feb. 18 in observance of Presidents Day

Red Cross

Bartow and Gordon County residents with emergency needs are urged to call the Red Cross at 404-870-4440.

ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. — Large blue tarps hide gaping holes where there once were roofs and windows. Piles of debris, chunks of trees and large machinery line the streets.

It's been almost two weeks since a powerful tornado ripped through Gordon and Bartow counties in Northwest Georgia. Cleanup continues, but the recovery could take years.

The small town of Adairsville, however, is ready to move on, vowing that the biggest storm anyone can remember was not enough to push residents away.

"This is just home. I've been here all my life," Jill Brown told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I just can't believe this happened. I've never seen anything like it anywhere."

Nearly 100 structures were damaged in Adairsville and at least another 500 in neighboring Gordon County, officials said.

"Over 500 [structures were] affected in some shape, form or fashion," said Richard Cooper, Gordon County's emergency management director. A final tally should be finished late this week, he said.

Cooper doesn't think the damage to uninsured homes and businesses will exceed $13.2 million -- the threshold required for cleanup assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But federal help in the form of loans for the uninsured became available Monday, when the federal Small Business Administration opened disaster assistance centers in the two hard-hit counties. The SBA offers low-interest loans to cover uninsured losses by businesses, homeowners, and renters. Loans of up to $40,000 are available for loss of personal property, $200,000 for damage to homes, and $2 million for businesses and nonprofit organizations.

The federal loans also are available for tornado damage in the Georgia counties of Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Gilmer, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk, Walker and Whitfield.

Some homes and businesses, such as the Daeki plant in Adairsville, are complete losses, while others have varying degrees of damage.

The tornado tore a huge hole in the top of one of Adairsville's water tanks. As a precaution, people were advised for several days to boil or otherwise treat their water before drinking it.

"The city as a whole will see some normalcy soon," Adairsville Police Chief Robert Jones said in his office last week. "But the rebuilding could take a year or even two or three."

Red Cross caseworkers in Bartow and Gordon counties continue to meet with families through mobile outreach and at established Red Cross centers to provide things such as food, clothing, relocation assistance, prescription replacement, emotional support and referrals for more resources.

Everyone around was affected by the storm, which killed two people in Bartow County and injured other people in both counties in a matter of minutes.

Of the eight people injured in Gordon County, six were treated and released, Cooper said. The worst injuries were a grandmother and her grandson who were found in the middle of a road after the tornado destroyed their home, he said. They were treated at Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

"He's in a cast," Cooper said of the boy, whose leg was broken. "She is doing better. She is going to recover OK."

Everyone has a story recounting where they were and the nightmare of the past week. But the storm couldn't damage the sense of community in Adairsville.

Brown grew up on McKenzie Street in a home that somehow missed the path of the 160 mph EF3 tornado. Her uncle's house next door, a brick ranch built in 1963, was not as lucky. Brown's terminally ill uncle, Sammy Ellis, is bedridden and couldn't get out of his home when three enormous trees uprooted, with one crushing the roof above his head. Water flowed out of light fixtures as Ellis waited to be rescued, Brown said.

While Brown now lives in Farmville, the days after the tornado are not ones she ever wants to relive, and the shock of it all still hasn't worn off.

Where there was once a plush front yard with a small fountain and a row of bushes, there is now a muddy mess of trees and limbs. A hole the width of the driveway appeared to have swallowed up the bottom half of a tree.

The timing couldn't have been worse. The house can be repaired, Brown says. And when it's ready, she'll return and move into his house she'll eventually inherit, she said.

But her uncle won't. Brown swept Ellis' carport Wednesday afternoon after spending much of the day planning for his eventual funeral.

Still, Brown and her neighbors have been encouraged by the number of people showing up to help, strangers willing to help.

More than 1,200 volunteers already have helped with cleanup efforts in Adairsville, Jones said. "It's phenomenal what the city and volunteers have been able to do."

Jones said the response from law enforcement also has been overwhelming, with dozens from neighboring counties and beyond showing up ready to help. A dusk-to-dawn curfew, in place during the days right after the storm, may not have pleased everyone but it kept other crimes at a minimum, Jones said. Storm victims were not going to be victims of looting and scams if he had anything to do with it, he said.

Dealing with an emergency of this magnitude will serve as a learning experience, making the town more prepared in the future, Jones said.

"It's changed the landscape physically, but also how we're going to be prepared, if something like this were to ever happen again," Jones said.

There are still many unknowns for the area, such as whether the large manufacturing plant will rebuild and employ residents again. There still is no electricity in some areas.

Brown can't stop her eyes from tearing up while talking about the storm damage. But still, she counts her blessings.

"I'm thankful. I'm just so thankful that we're alive," Brown said. "These are good people up here. We'll handle it."

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