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First of all, thanks to all of you who have called or emailed to tell me my blog or photosite update was helpful to you. Some of you have shared this information with other people — please do, since we continue to hear that in most areas, the news cycle has moved on.

Some news I learned today:

The hospital, which will be closed for an indeterminate amount of time, referred to only as “months,” has announced they are not laying off employees, as early reports hinted. This is a huge relief for the employees, as well as local government, which is already reeling from the loss of about 350 jobs only recently.

Many businesses are already reopening in temporary locations, including our family doctor, who moved into an after hours medical care facility. I read an interview with his partner, which said they were all set to move into a new 15,000 square foot facilty; both their current office and the new space were destroyed. According to a local TV station’s website, all but four local doctors have temporary office space somewhere in town. An accounting firm moved into a vacant church. Some other businesses have set up tents in their parking lots. But dozens of other businesses are still working out what to do, and initial reports state that hundreds of people will lose their jobs, at least temporarily. The Georgia Department of Labor set up an emergency center to start taking claims yesterday.

The Red Cross has announced that of the 500+ homes that are damaged, 173 were “destroyed” and 198 were “heavily damaged” — that’s 371 homes in unlivable condition.

Georgia Public Broadcasting did a piece I heard on the way to soccer practice that said the statewide damage from the storms and tornadoes was $135 million, and may possibly be the costliest insurance payout in state history. They stated that the “bulk” of the damage cost was in our town; the AP reports that only half that amount was here.

According to a widely published AP piece which my brother brought to my attention, Habitat for Humanity built four of the seriously damaged homes, and announced today that they would replace them, as well as helping other poor victims of the tornadoes. Interestingly, the article went on to say they would work with another local housing charity — the Fuller Center, founded by Habitat’s founder and former CEO, Millard Fuller. This would be a big step towards healing the hard feelings in the our community that resulted after Habitat asked Millard to leave. I hope the injured parties and local gossips are all ready to move on. You may have read the AP piece in your local paper.

I reached a friend yesterday afternoon, the deacon at our church, who I serve with in a local AIDS nonprofit. We caught up after leaving messages back and forth, and I learned that he’d gone in to take out what he wanted to keep from his home. I mentioned in my second update that both his home and his car were destroyed. His cottage was scheduled to be bulldozed today. He had a remarkably positive perspective — he told me it would be a relief to shed the “stuff” of his life and start over with only the essentials. Personally, I hope he saved his notebooks. He was an AP reporter, and covered the Civil Rights movement. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Birmingham church bombing, and filed the AP story that morning. I’ve heard him speak about interviewing Dr. King, and about the danger he and other white reporters faced all over the South. When we spoke though, he mostly wanted to tell me what a relief it will be to be reunited with his cat, who has been boarding at the vet while he worked out shelter for the two of them.

Much of the cleanup that can be done by volunteers is wrapping up. That’s hard for me to believe, having driven around town today, but I guess businesses generally have to hire help, for liability reasons. Home cleanup, at least on the exterior, has gone pretty smoothly, and a friend of mine who went out on several cleanup teams yesterday said that today the volunteer center sent her home. What’s left are structural problems, demolition, and huge trees or other large, heavy debris that cannot be cleared by hand or without professional consultation.

Schools, including the local state college, will reopen tomorrow.

Our effort to help out today was to invite kids from two families we know over to play soccer this afternoon (real and video). One is the family we were trying to reach on Saturday. An update on their electrical situation — they managed, through the dad’s personal contacts (he’s a contractor) to track down help and get the connection at the house repaired, and the power company restored their electricity. They won’t have phone (nor internet access) for another week. The other family lost power through Saturday night, but like us, were spared other damage. The dad is also a contractor, and the mom is out of town, so he was free to go check on some friends with major structural damage while the boys were here. None of the 4 boys who came over are looking forward to school being back in session. As I was loading the car to take two of them home, and then take G. to practice, a tree fell in the empty lot next door, not too far from the property line. Both boys jumped — and these are pretty fearless, rough and tumble guys, 12 and 13 years old. I imagine there won’t be much accomplished in classrooms this week, as kids are trying to move on from what they’ve been through, and what’s happened to our community.

That said, stay tuned for my regular poembound update on Friday. I am hoping to get back to my workshop group, and if I do, I’ll look forward to encouraging them to write about their experiences of the tornado and its aftermath.


A little more information about the tornado and the aftermath:

The tornado was an “EF-3. ” The scale goes up to “EF-5,” and “EF-3” means that the winds were 136-165 mph. The storm was over a mile wide and 38 miles long, according to a city spokesperson. I don’t know if that means the actual path of destruction stretched 38 miles? It’s mind boggling. I didn’t think it could be accurate, so I surfed around this evening looking for this statistic, and found this entry from the National Weather Service bulletins out of Peachtree City, Georgia for Thursday night:


Here’s a handy explanation of the “Enhanced Fujita” (EF) scale:

I sincerely hope I never see what an “EF-5” can do.

The Red Cross estimates that more than 500 homes were damaged, and one report said the repairs are estimated at $65 million. I don’t know how they calculate that.

In church today, we learned which members have damaged homes and/or cars. Amazingly, no one was injured. Our deacon spent Thursday night (through the second wave of thunderstorms and rain) in his severely damaged home, alone with his cat. His car was flattened by a large tree, and the pastor said she had to climb over about 8 other huge trees to get to him on Friday. The road he lives on — a state highway on the way out of town to Andersonville — was so covered in downed trees and power poles that it’s closed to all but emergency crews and residents. They were hoping to get it reopened today.

After church, my friend Y. and I went to the store and then packed lunch sacks in her kitchen, with sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and water. Then S. and our kids (G. and K.) and she and her daughter and I all went back to the neighborhood G. & I were in yesterday to try and find folks who were unable to get out, and give them lunch. It wasn’t much, but we wanted to do something.

S. had not seen the damage in person, since he and K. stayed home yesterday. He was blown away. He and G. decided it was too intrusive to take photos today, but G. has asked to go back tomorrow, which we may possibly try to do. We don’t want to get in the way, but I understand his desire to capture what he’s seeing. K. told me on the way home that it was much worse than she was expecting.

We saw so much devastation I am not sure I can really do it justice in words. Cars overturned or smashed, windows broken, roofs damaged, large pieces of sheet metal crumpled up like a piece of paper and tossed around, signs bent over, massive trees with root-balls in the air, others snapped like twigs, garages or sheds flattened. But the good news is that there were power crews in that neighborhood today, and we saw teams of volunteers from at least two churches — people who just wanted to pitch in, who were out there with saws and tarps and tools, trying to clear trees and help people. G. also chatted with someone who had come from North Carolina. In a few houses, relatives were helping. In others, no one was home — I imagine some people are just too overwhelmed to even know where to begin. But at least help is starting to arrive.

One woman, near the “house with no walls” that I described yesterday, came to her door, took the lunch I offered, and said “God has blessed me so much, and He’s continuing to bless me now.” Wow. She had power lines in her yard, damage to her house, trees all over the place, broken glass leading up to her steps, and that was what she said.

Many of the residents we visited today face the same problem as our friends on the east side of town, who we did manage to reach in the afternoon yesterday. The electrical box where the lines come into their house detached or was otherwise damaged — which requires a certified electrician for repair and then inspection by the city before power can be restored. She was worried that they wouldn’t be able to find someone to do the repair work, because her husband had already called three electricians who hadn’t called back. An elderly couple who was sitting on the porch of their damaged house down the street from the hospital today told us the same thing — the power was due to be on in their street late today, but they would not be able to get power to their house because of the damaged box. It’s a potential fire hazard, so I understand the rule, but I wondered, having hired contractors here and there over the years, how people of limited means will be able to pay. I hope this is something FEMA can help with, since we were officially declared a disaster area today, and that means people will be able to apply for loans and other aid through their programs. We’ve all heard such horror stories about the red tape involved in this process. I hope the system works smoothly for those who need it.

S. made it through an area that was closed off yesterday. It’s where we stayed in a historic old inn when we were house hunting. All the trees are down, the gazebo is crushed, all the houses ringing the park sustained some amount of damage. There is an old brick school on the park, where K. used to take art classes, which recently underwent a major restoration; the whole back half of the building is now rubble. S. noted that you can now see clear across town in the north/south direction because so many trees are gone. They look as if a giant just came along and snapped them all off.

I realized today through emails and calls with friends and family that in some parts of the country, even with the presidential visit, the tornado was barely a blip in the news, or wasn’t reported at all. It really made me realize that I’ve had the same experience in the past — I hear a brief mention of a tornado or other natural disaster and I haven’t really understood the extent to which people’s lives are impacted. In fact, right now in many other communities across the South, people are dealing with their own tornado damage, injuries, and grief. The next day, or even later the same day, the news cycle moves on to something new. Meanwhile, people in the place where the damage took place are still devastated.

On the other hand, those places recover, eventually, and so will our town. Even though many people are overwhelmed, the community is expressing great resolve, and overall the response of officials and volunteers has been very impressive. The Red Cross has had to turn potential volunteers away because they have so many. The power crews from other places began arriving early Friday. The whole plan for temporary emergency medical care seems very organized, and today, a mobile hospital arrived from Ft. Benning; it will serve as the temporary community hospital until ours is rebuilt.

On a final note, I learned today that the “house with no walls” in my blog entry yesterday (and site of the president’s visit) was the duplex you may have read about in the news, where two people died. We felt utterly amazed today that no one else was killed here, based on what we saw. We have heard many stories of people who ran to another room just before a tree crashed through, or made it to a hallway, or went into a bathroom literally seconds before they would have been injured. A hospital official told the media he felt there was no explanation for the fact that all the patients and staff there were safely evacuated with no deaths or injuries during the tornado or after, other than “the hand of God.” Indeed.

If you are looking for this week’s poembound update, check back in a week or so. Thursday night we had a tornado, so there was no school and no workshop.

I’ve just been out with my son. We had in mind trying to check on some friends, and then get over to WalMart; we also knew the president was coming and wondered if we’d be able to see him.

We spent about an hour trying to get over to WalMart and the neighborhood at that end of town where some friends live. The destructive power of the storm and the tornadoes was incredible. We wound around in the historic district and the poor areas behind the hospital, which was devastated. On the “nice” streets, i.e. the middle to upper middle class areas, there were tree services, police everywhere — including many officers from out of town who had no idea how I could get over to WalMart — and lots and lots of electric company crews. There were so many police and so many areas blocked off that we finally gave up and were about to go home, when we decided to try and go a different way. I was sure it would be blocked off, as it was the area we’d heard was most seriously damaged. To my great surprise, there was no police barricade, and no one directing traffic away. So we proceeded, cautiously.

You know what’s coming next . . . in the area behind the hospital and beyond, which is a neighborhood that was absolutely smashed, we saw power lines in the street, utility poles leaning over the street or on top of people’s cars, in yards, etc. Houses, beyond description. One house had no roof and no walls — but somehow the inside looked just as it was. The bed was even made. We saw trees that looked like they’d exploded. Pieces of metal hanging in trees. Cars smashed. A large trash can, hanging in a downed tree. Trees too big to get your arms around, uprooted. Trees on roofs, on porches, on houses, sticking out of houses. Houses that looked like they’d just crumpled. Not only no electricity here, no phone, and where water lines broke, no water.

In every street, there were neighbors walking around, people helping each other, but we saw only one utility crew, and no police. It’s hard not to make the connection that people in this neighborhood are not getting help quickly because they can’t afford it. I know from having several trees down in our own yard that it’s expensive to hire a tree service. I know the power is off, so the lines are dead, but no utility crews had even been by to get the downed lines off the street. There were wires hanging and laying everywhere. After a few minutes we realized that there was no way we were going to get through to WalMart that way either, unless we wanted to sit in the car and burn off our gas. The streets are very narrow, and there were lots of cars trying to get through. We decided it wasn’t that important and turned back.

We checked in with my husband, who said the local radio station was reporting that the president would be speaking in the parking lot of the former wellness center (now a wrecked building), so we parked near the hospital and started walking that way. We fell in with 4 young men, who were excited that the president was going to be there. We tried to turn down a street and were yelled at by a state trooper, despite the fact that three others had watched us go that way. We drifted down the side street, hoping we could turn and wind our way through. The teens began to cut through yards, but there was broken glass and debris everywhere, so my son & I stayed on the street.

We’d heard the helicopters go over, and my husband called back to say the president was reportedly on the ground. We saw some dark cars, so I said “Let’s stop, it looks like he’s coming right by.” When we turned around, the motorcade stopped. There were not many people around — I’d say less than twenty. We were right in front of the house with no walls. People began jumping out of the cars. I began to shake as we realized — holy cow, he’s getting out right here. We were literally just a few feet away. Some people went straight to him, but we kind of hung back a bit, taking photos. Then the governor saw me trying to get my son to look at me so I could take a photo with the president beyond him, and put his arm around him and said, “Come on son, you can meet him.”

A few seconds later, President Bush was shaking my son’s hand . . . . and my camera battery died. The governor teased me about that! I shook the president’s hand too. He looked directly at each person he shook hands with. I thanked him for coming, and asked him, “Please get help to our town.” He said “tough times.” I was so flustered I didn’t say it well. What I really worry about is the hospital. It’s the only one in the county, and it serves a very wide area. Of course, I was also pretty worried about what I’d seen.

The president was very gracious as he greeted people. He acted like he had all the time in the world. He hugged and kissed people, asked how they were, whether their homes were damaged. Asked if they’d been in the storm. He was also clearly aware of himself — he carried himself, for lack of a better word, presidentially. He knows he’s the man.

A few moments later, when we’d recovered a bit from the surprise, my son and I went back over to the governor and thanked him for helping us to meet the president. Then we turned around and there was our congressman, Sanford Bishop. I introduced myself, and took a moment to explain that if you went a couple of blocks past where we stood, it looked as if no crews had even been there, and there were no police, and that in the areas with the nicer houses, there were police everywhere and lots of workers. He tried to argue that there were power company trucks right across the street from us — and there were, although they were just parked there, with no crews in sight. But I asked him to go further, and see what the poorest areas were dealing with. I asked him, “Please, do what you can to make sure the poor neighborhoods get help, because they’re going to need it.” He said he would.

I have no idea whether he will, or whether he was really the person to talk to. In retrospect, maybe I should have asked the governor. All I know is that I was very upset and disheartened by what I saw, and I had to tell someone. I felt so helpless. I wish there was some way to translate all the good intentions that occur around a natural disaster to actual improvements in the lives of people who are stuck in poverty.

I know from working with students at the poetry workshops that the poor in my community face schools that give up on their kids. We have a 33% functional illiteracy rate here — 1 in 3 adults can’t read and write well enough to fill out a job application, according to a local literacy group. There are few jobs — an auto parts plant just closed recently, and it was one of the highest paying and largest employers in the area, and other companies have closed or moved away in the four years we’ve lived here. There are few options if you have only basic education, a low paying job, relatives in the area that depend on you, and no means to just pack up and move somewhere better.

Four years of living in a high poverty area has shown us that it’s easy to say that people can lift themselves out of poverty with a little help, but that it’s incredibly challenging for real people to actually do that, while also worrying about their kids, trying to find and keep a job, and dealing with all the everyday worries of life. Now, some in my community are doing all of that AND facing the prospect of having to recover from damaged homes. It’s daunting. When politicians talk about two Americas, they’re describing my town. I don’t think it’s as simple as rich — or even just economically secure — and poor, though.

Yesterday we heard a woman on the radio say she was afraid to leave her house because she thought there’d be looters. So far, there haven’t been any actual reports of looting, not on the local radio or tv stations, anyway. The reporter announced that the curfew and the extra police would help prevent trouble. I guess if you live where there’s nothing to loot, you don’t get extra help, which is why we saw so few police in the poor side of town.

What neither the reporter nor the woman who was worried about looters said is that the neighborhoods the police are trying to keep people out of are also predominantly white, besides being middle to upper middle class. The poor area behind the hospital, where the president stopped, is predominantly black. When they conversed on the radio about “people walking around who don’t need to be in this neighborhood,” it’s pretty likely that she was basing that on the fact that for some reason, they didn’t “look” like they lived there, and therefore she assumed they were up to no good.

I digress. Before he got back in the motorcade, I heard the president say “I’m glad someone’s happy.” He was talking to a woman who’d come up on foot, was dressed very humbly, and said she was glad to be alive. I felt ashamed that last night, I was so glad for my electricity, which had been restored. This woman was happy, probably without electricity. Maybe even with a damaged house. She was happy to be standing there, talking to one of the most powerful men on earth for a few moments. I’m glad he could bring her some comfort, and I really appreciate that he came here and gave of his time and his compassion today.

P.S. We made it out to some friends’ houses later today and the devastation — whole streets full of trees down, power lines tangled, etc. — was just mind boggling. People who HAVE resources and jobs and insurance and everything else are going to have a terrible time recovering. It’s amazing. The Red Cross reports over 500 houses damaged so far.