Cleanup begins in Camilla after tornado destroys lives, homes

Saturday, March 22, 2003

CAMILLA, Ga. -- Their homes smashed to nothing and many left with only the clothes on their backs, tornado survivors began putting their lives back together Friday.

The storm killed six people, injured 200, destroyed up to 100 homes and damaged 50 more when it struck Mitchell and Worth counties in southwest Georgia before dawn Thursday. Five people remained in critical condition.

For some, it was too soon to determine how much they had lost and what it would take to rebuild.

"Rebuild? It just happened yesterday, and we don't know about tomorrow," said Willie J. West Jr., as he waited in line for assistance at Camilla's makeshift disaster relief center. "I lost everything, including the toothbrush."

Downed trees and demolished houses lined Camilla's streets as volunteers, police and government workers quickly assembled to help victims. The disaster relief center, a room appropriated from the fourth floor of City Hall, was the starting point.

From there, a volunteer with a chain saw could be matched with a victim who has a tree through his roof. Someone who wants to donate clothes can be introduced to someone who needs them.

Everyday people who wanted to pitch in were directed to where their talents can best be used.

"They can get the help they need at a one-stop shop," said Eric Brooks, director of the Camilla Chamber of Commerce, which is coordinating volunteers.

For many, the challenge remains finding food, shelter and clothing. Once that is taken care of, they can sift through the rubble for any possessions that may have survived.

"Yesterday was a day of shock. Today people can get in and see what's left," said Ann Lamb, emergency management director for Mitchell County.

Most of the cleanup involves clearing the roads of trees, hooking up power lines and moving debris out of the way. Next week, the heavy machinery will arrive to bulldoze collapsed homes.

All the missing were accounted for by Friday morning, Lamb said. Most of those treated for injuries have been released.

"It was a wild ride," said Diane McGahee, who barely got inside before the tornado came. "We had the last two miss us, but the third caught up with us."

McGahee and her husband Mark ran from their mobile home to find safety in his father's house nearby. They both had to push as hard as they could to close the front door.

Then the walls, roof and glass windows imploded, said Mark McGahee. The house was destroyed. The McGahee's mobile home across the street was hardly touched -- it was just lifted about 2 feet off its foundation.

Meanwhile, authorities Friday identified the four Mitchell County residents who died in the tornado. They were Kay Demott, 40; O.C. Williams, 42; Jahaven Hill, 8 months; and Bakari Haywood, 8. They were all from Camilla.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency is giving victims a paper voucher that they can show to volunteer organizations for help. They can get tetanus shots, personalized help, short-term shelter, food and child care, said Jennifer Collins, spokeswoman for GEMA.

The relief effort seemed to be going smoothly in part because disaster workers handled another tornado in Camilla on Valentine's Day 2000, she said.

"It's fortunate that they know what to do because it streamlines the process," she said. "It's unfortunate because severe weather has struck this area twice in three years."

Teams of emergency workers patrolled the streets of Camilla to begin assessing where the worst damage was, how many homes were destroyed and how much it will cost, said Gary Rice, GEMA area coordinator.

The tornado tore through a patch of land 22 miles long and a half mile wide at some points, Collins said.

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