ALBANY – Danny Lairsey, a 40-year-old single father wearing the same dirty Georgia Bulldogs hoodie he wore all night, drudged Monday morning over pine needles, trash and fallen power lines to find his battered mobile home. It lay under a fallen canopy of pines with the bark on every limb coated in a soggy paste of torn insulation from his neighbors’ homes.
A day earlier, a suspected tornado came through the Big Pines Estates home park and other areas around Ga. 19 here in the Dougherty County seat, killing four people. Officials expect that number to rise as search and rescue efforts continue, possibly for days, in the neighborhood, with its homes crushed and the ground covered in people’s belongings: clothes, canned goods, off-brand baby shoes.
Details on all the victims haven’t been released, but county coroner Michael Fowler Sr. identified two of the deceased as Paul Freeman, 82, who lived in a house behind the park, and Big Pines Estates resident Oscar Reyna, 39.
Several wheelchair-bound people were found still in the trailer park alive Monday, Fowler said, adding that more living and deceased victims could be waiting to be found.
Lairsey’s voice was still shaking slightly as he approached the park for the first time, his eyes weary.
In the distance he could hear his two dogs barking in the trailer where he’d had to leave them overnight. He wanted to check on the animals, his “babies,” as he called them.
But two search and rescue team members stopped him and asked him to leave.
“There still might be some bodies in here,” one of the men told Lairsey, apologizing.
“I understand,” Lairsey said, “I found two yesterday.”
Authorities haven’t yet released information on the dead or attempted to guess at a final number of victims. If Albany’s death toll of four holds, that will make 15 people killed in suspected Georgia tornadoes Sunday.
The storm hit in the densely-populated neighborhood of some 250 mobile homes, as well as two nearby parks, in the afternoon, causing Big Pines Estates’ namesake pines to betray residents.
Neko Green, 35, stood in shock Monday morning looking at the pounded end of her trailer that used to be her 7-year-old son’s bedroom.
She saw her living room, the sofa and TV still in place, but the wall of the home completely gone.
“It ain’t nothing left,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
She turned and saw her neighbors’ trailer nearly flattened.
“Did she get out?” Green wondered. “I hope so. She’s got five or six kids.”
Green was among the residents who took warnings and left before the storm.
Many, like Lairsey, stayed.
He said he heard about the storm on the TV news Sunday afternoon. When he decided to flee, he opened his front door and saw it was already too late.
So he waited it out and tried to help neighbors to safety.
Asked about the experience of seeing so much destruction and finding the bodies, he could only say it was hard.
Monday morning, it was still hard as he stood wondering what to do outside his ravaged neighborhood, which now sits next to two mangled gas stations.
Lairsey managed to get the workers to let him inside long enough to try to get the dogs.
Soon he emerged with one dog under his arm and a Tupperware container of dog food.
He said he couldn’t reach the other dog.
Like the dozens of others residents now pulling up to the park, Lairsey would have to go back again to try to find what he’d lost.