Help from neighbors, strangers after tornadoes made Columbus man an optimist
A phone call to Ray Jenkins of Talbotton, Georgia, ended his early March vacation to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
At first, he thought his neighbor was playing a joke — like he often did. But when he saw the pictures, he knew it was the truth.
“All the fun was over with,” Jenkins said. “It was time to hit the highway and see what we had left. But we didn’t have anything left — wasn’t nothing left.”
Jenkins’ home and five cars were destroyed ina string of tornadoes that damaged communities around the Georgia-Alabama border and in portions of northern and central Georgia a little more than a month ago.
The strongest of those roughly 40 tornadoes that cut through portions of the southeast more than a month ago killed 23 people in the tiny Alabama community of Beauregard. Elsewhere, many had stories like Jenkins.
Lives were spared but homes, places of worships and other properties were not. Officials and residents in communities stretching from Smiths Station, Alabama, to Talbot County, Georgia, and Middle Georgia expressed gratitude for the kindness of neighbors and far off strangers who helped in the wake of the tornadoes.
Clean up efforts in more damaged areas remain. Efforts to rebuild are underway or will soon begin. But the scars from the tornadoes remain.
Throughout the afternoon of March 3, 14 tornadoes cut across portions of northern and central Georgia, according to the National Weather Service’s Peachtree City office.
▪ Muscogee/Harris/Talbot counties (140 mph). This storm was an EF-4 in Alabama.
▪ Stewart/Webster counties (125 mph)
▪ Crawford/Peach counties (115 mph)
▪ Wilkinson County (105 mph)
▪ Washington County (105 mph)
▪ Northern Harris County (100 mph)
▪ Washington County (95 mph)
▪ Twiggs County (90 mph)
▪ Western Washington County (90 mph)
▪ Bibb County, downtown Macon (85 mph)
▪ Telfair County (85 mph)
▪ Telfair County (80 mph)
▪ Macon/Peach counties (80 mph)
▪ Taylor County (70 mph)
The strongest storm was an EF3 that cut through portions of Muscogee, Harris and Talbot counties. This was the storm that killed 23 in the tiny community of Beauregard. After cutting through Beauregard, the storm continued on a path through Lee County towards Fullers Lake. On its way to the border, the storm devastated the town of Smiths Station.
Smiths Station, Alabama
Of the roughly 5,000 people who live in Smiths Station, many saw their homes damaged. Forty-five families are without homes and West Smiths Station Elementary was heavily damaged after the tornado that came through, town officials said.
This past Monday was the first time F.L. “Bubba” Copeland, Smiths Station’s mayor, made it home from work before dark.
“I can’t put into words how bad it was,” he said of the damage. “It’s just like you were taking a portion of the city, putting it in a blender and hitting pulverize, you know.”
The day of the storm, Copeland came home after preaching and eating lunch. His phone started going off with warnings and then the sirens began to wail.
The tornado missed Copeland’s home by about 300 yards. Residents began texting him asking for help. He got in his truck and tried to help in any way he could, he said.
“You could smell gas that was spewing out of the ground. Just people screaming — people walking around in total shock,” he said.
Still, more than a month removed, some places look nearly the same as they did after the tornado came through — like Lee Road 319. Work is still being done in those areas, and Copeland estimates that the city is 85 percent to 90 percent cleaned up.
Copeland attributes the city’s progress to the swell of volunteers that made their way to Smiths Station following the storm. He estimates more than 7,000 people from all parts of the country and backgrounds came to help in the city alone.
Some used their vacation to handle donations. Some pulled up grills or manned catfish wagons to cook meals. Some just got in their cars and drove to Smiths Station and got to work.
The volunteer reception center at Smiths Station City Hall remains open, and about 35 people are still working in portions of the city, Copeland said.
Copeland described the volunteers who helped in Smiths Station as “the best of America.”
“Volunteers from every walk of life — from Muslim to LGBT to Agnostic, Atheist, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Jewish, rich, poor, male, female, short, young, old, and tall — people from every walk of life from all over the United States to help us,” he said. “And if it would not have been for the concerted effort for those volunteers, we would not be in the position that we are now to begin rebuilding.”
Northern Muscogee county
About half an hour after cutting its way through Lee County, the tornado crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia near Winding Ridge Road in Muscogee County. The storm traveled east-northeast along Old River Road and Biggers Road, according to the National Weather Service.
Tom Hackett, a former Columbus State University provost, was hosting a baby shower celebrating his soon-to-be born grandson the day that the tornado hit. His friends and family — around 20 people and two dogs — were in the house near Whitesville and Biggers roads.
“It was the dang-dest thing you ever saw,” he said. “It’s a crazy story.”
One of Hackett’s son and his fiancée had just finished opening the presents. The weather reports were playing on the television, and some people in the house went outside on the driveway to look up at the sky.
“It didn’t look like much,” he said.
Thinking the storm went to the north of where they lived, Hackett and others resumed the party. That quickly changed. The lights flickered.
Hackett’s middle son, a fireman who had previous tornado experience, ordered everyone at the party into the hallway. Everyone remained calm. Hackett was ushering people into the hallway when he looked outside and saw a tree begin to bend slowly. It didn’t stop.
“It just kept going in slow motion,” he said.
It was over soon, and Hackett and others went outside to look around. The house was untouched but his yard was destroyed. A few trees blocked Hackett’s driveway for a brief period. Neighbors eventually cut up and cleared the trees, allowing the party guests to leave.
“My wife had actually started talking about how many sleeping bags do we have, the power was gone, do we have enough food,” Hackett said. “Luckily, we had a lot of party food. We figured we could make it a day.”
Other neighbors nearby weren’t as lucky. One of Hackett’s neighbor’s lost part of his roof and all of the large trees in his yard. Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson, who lives nearby, lost nearly every tree in his yard.
“It was stunning to see what happened,” Hackett said. “There’s no way to describe looking at such a fundamental change to the entire neighborhood.”
Power at Hackett’s home remained out for three days. He learned of the devastation in Lee County the morning after the tornado.
“All I could think of is those families there and how fortunate we were,” he said.
In early April, tarps remain on roofs and city workers are still removing trees from the Cherokee Hills neighborhood. A large stack of trees, the second wave to be removed, and a balled up lawn mower sat in front of Hackett’s yard.
The efforts of volunteers in the area to help those in need, Hackett said, changed his outlook on life.
“That was life-transforming for us to see neighbors helping neighbors and people from Oregon and California coming into my yard helping me out,” he said. “People are good. People want to do good. When it gets down to sheer basics, people want to help people. It just made me much more of an optimist, I think.”
Two tornadoes cut through Harris County. The first came across the southern portion of the county. It was the same storm that crossed over from Alabama and cut through Muscogee County, according to the National Weather Service.
The second was a smaller storm that came from a supercell thunderstorm. It began just west of the intersection of Hopewell Church and Hamilton Pleasant Grove roads. It traveled east-northeast along Georgia Highway 18 as it knocked down hundreds of trees. Several fell on homes.
It reached its strongest point as it approached the city of Pine Mountain. Wind speeds peaked at 100 miles per hour as it moved through the southern Pine Mountain. The storm caused a tree to fall onto an apartment, destroying a room on the second floor. It died out just east of the city, according to the National Weather Service.
Around 295 homes in Harris County were affected by the storms. County and state officials estimated they’ve taken more than 2,500 dump truck loads of storm debris away as of the end of March, said Harris County EMA director Monty Davis.
The entire roof of a two-story home on Mustang Trail was blown off by the wind.
“I don’t know that we had any totally destroyed (homes.) We have a lot of them that have major damage to them but they can be fixed and rebuilt. We’re very fortunate in that aspect,” he said.
Davis, who lives in Ellerslie, was trying to get to work the night of the storm, but power lines were down at the end of his street. He wasn’t able to leave until Georgia Power cleared the road and assured him that the lines weren’t live. The storm missed his home by a couple hundred yards. He had some trees down, but his home wasn’t damaged.
He got home from work around 2 a.m. Monday, and he was back in the office by 5 a.m.
“It was a busy couple of days,” he said.
In the days and weeks following the storms, members of the community rallied around each other. They helped clear roads and removed trees off their neighbors’ houses.
Skip Wyatt, the volunteer fire chief in Ellerslie, said the city is coming along well in the cleanup efforts. A lot of trees are still down and roofs need to be replaced.
“There’s still tarps all over roofs and the people are steadily trying to get them repaired,” Wyatt said. “Everybody is backed up. The roofers are backed up because there’s so much damage. ...It’ll never be the same out here for many years.”
Just before 4 p.m., the tornado that started in Alabama and made its way through Muscogee and Harris counties continued its path into Talbot County. The storm, reaching winds around 140 miles per hour, quickly destroyed a small church, a mobile home and dozens of trees.
Nothing was left of the cinder blocks and mortar that once were the Humble Zion Church, according to the National Weather Service.
The tornado continued east-northeast before it weakened significantly. The storm reached northern Talbotton around 4:05 p.m. where it destroyed several homes. It strengthened again just before it passed Washington Avenue, the town’s main north-south road. A few double wide and single wide homes were turned over, twisted or destroyed, the National Weather Service reported.
Ray Jenkins’ home was on Washington Avenue. He and his wife weren’t home, but his neighbor called and gave him the news. Before long, he was on his way home from his vacation.
“He said ‘My house, your house … everything gone,’” Jenkins said. “That just killed me. ...I thought he was calling me for a joke, you know, because we always joke around with each other. After he sent me some pictures, the joke was over with. That was the end of that.”
The Ledger-Enquirer interviewed Jenkins the day after the storm, March 4. He spoke with Gov. Brian Kemp while Kemp visited the area following a state of emergency declaration for Harris, Talbot and Grady counties.
Jenkins’ home was one of an estimated 18 homes destroyed and 85 affected, said Leigh Ann Erenheim, the county’s EMA director. Other homes may have minor damage, and those estimates also don’t include damage to structures like barns or fences, she said.
The most heavily damaged area of the county was within the city limits of Talbotton. There’s no estimate on the amount of damage the storm caused, she said.
“The figure will probably be pretty substantial,” she said.
Jenkins lived with his daughter in Phenix City following the storm, and insurance is helping him cover his losses. He and his wife haven’t decided if they’ll put another home on their land on Washington Avenue.
“I’m blessed to be here,” he said. “We can’t question what happened.”