South Georgia officials on Monday pleaded with the Trump administration for help as they struggled to pick up the pieces from back-to-back violent storms.
Fifteen people have been confirmed dead across four counties in the southern reaches of the state and that number could rise as emergency workers pick through acres of trailer parks and homes flattened by the weekend’s tornado.
For the victims, Monday was a day to regroup with family, tally their losses and process the tragic scenes they survived. Authorities also began the grim task of identifying the dead. The youngest was 18 and the oldest 82.
In Dougherty County, where four people perished, local officials expressed frustration and said they felt abandoned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Albany area was still recovering from a devastating tornado Jan. 2 that left a trail of damage in excess of $50 million when they were hit early Sunday with another brutal storm.
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“We’ve been begging for help from FEMA (since Jan. 2) – the reason the federal government exists,” County Chairman Christopher S. Cohilas said. “This community was crippled. Our families have been hurting, needing help for some time.”
Cohilas called on President Donald Trump to help cut the “bureaucratic red tape” and help get some “damn boots on the ground.”
While Cohilas singled out the federal government for his ire, it is state officials who must first make a disaster declaration, clearing the way for federal assistance. Soon after Cohilas’ comments, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office announced that nine more counties had been declared disaster areas. One of them was Dougherty County.
“The state is making all of our resources available,” Deal said at an afternoon news conference. State officials said they are continuing search and rescue efforts in South Georgia, with more than 250 state employees working to clear debris, and provide shelter and disaster relief.
Deal is set to visit the affected areas Wednesday. Trump called Deal on Sunday to offer assistance.
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In an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a FEMA spokesman said the agency is working on the Jan. 9 assistance request from the Albany area to deal with the first round of storms that hit the town early this month. The agency also did initial damage assessments across Dougherty County Monday, including aerial observation, the spokesman wrote.
Additionally, the state has requested that FEMA work with state emergency officials to do federal and state preliminary damage assessments to help with individual and public assistance requests. A FEMA liaison officer is working with responders at the emergency operations center.
The agency’s website said it has an interim director, Robert Fenton, at the helm. Trump has yet to name someone to lead the agency, which leads disaster response efforts.
“It looks like God took half the mobile home park and threw it across the road into the woods,” Cohilas said.County emergency management director Ron Rowe said local resources are simply exhausted – and they have been for weeks.
“There are only a couple areas of our county that have not been affected by the tornadoes,” Rowe said.
Further Southeast in Cook County, seven people died in the Sunrise Acres Trailer Park. They ranged in age from 18 to 62. Another 23 people were injured but authorities said they don’t expect to find any more victims.
Mark Wool, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said 32 structures were flattened in the park, which had more than 90 trailers.
“Entirely blown away,” he said.
Wool called the tornado “significant” and said it will likely be declared a two or three on the tornado ranking scale. The highest ranking is five.
Local officials opened Sunrise Acres to the media Monday, offering a closer look at the devastation of homes, cars and so much else. The place has not yet been opened to people who lived there. Trailers were crushed and twisted and ripped apart with pieces of tin thrown everywhere. Cars were battered.
Auriel Holton, 25, could not shake the sight of the dead body she saw outside her trailer.
“It keeps playing in my head,” she said. “I don’t want to see it.”
She and her 8-month-old baby girl were huddled in their bedroom as the tornado shook the trailer violently. In the end the bedroom was just about the only room that wasn’t destroyed, she said.
She didn’t know what to do Monday, so she went to her job — cleaning at the Days Inn.
James Woods got out before the tornado destroyed his trailer and was able to get a quick look at it afterward.
“Rubbish,” he said. “It’s like a bomb was dropped. Half my trailer was blown out. “
He was in the local restaurant Sweet T’s Smokehouse, where owner Theresa Key was feeding victims and first responders for free.
“It’s not about making money today,” she said.
Woods was talking with Chris Newbern, a volunteer firefighter who responded to the scene.
“We were able to pull three children out from under a trailer,” he said.
They were one toddler and two elementary school age kids, and they were alive.
“You’re OK, you’re OK,” he kept telling them. They were crying.
“I don’t think they knew what was happening. It was dark,” he said.
He was struggling to make sense of it all.
“You can’t make rhyme or reason out of everything,” he said.
He added, “It makes you count your blessings.”
Josh Stewart, 18, saw trailers flying and the bodies on the ground. Facebook feeds and word of mouth had him worrying about a friend who he heard was badly injured.“His fiancée was killed and her mother was killed,” Stewart said.
“He was going into surgery. He doesn’t even know.” He shivered as he spoke. He was standing barefoot on the wet ground outside a gas station here. He said he was in shock.
He’s from Nashville and was visiting his own fiancée when the tornado bore down on the Sunrise Acres trailer park in the middle of the night. Their trailer was spared.
He didn’t even know what hospital his friend was in. “I’d like to find out where,” he said.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Rosalind Bentley and Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this story.
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