‘I want my life back’: Georgia tornado victims share experiences, try to rebuild

As the dust clears from the deadly storms that also caused severe damage to buildings and homes in North Georgia this month, residents are attempting to pick up the pieces.

More than a week after at least 12 tornadoes touched down across the state, killing three people, the Griffin-Spalding County School System finally resumed normal operations and class schedules Monday. The twisters, as powerful as an EF3, hit in several counties near the Atlanta metro area, including Cobb, Henry, Troup, Spalding, Pike and Butts.

Cleanup continues this week, with staff from the state insurance commissioner’s office planning to be in Spalding on Wednesday and Thursday to assist residents with filing claims and to answer insurance-related questions.

While life is getting back to normal for some, others are still without homes as they look for help and try to figure out what’s next.

Credit: Kristina Bright

Credit: Kristina Bright

The Brights

Kristina Bright was at home with her cousin and 8-year-old autistic son in Newton County on Jan. 12 when the lights started to flicker, she said. Soon after, several trees fell on the house, causing the roof and walls to cave in, according to a GoFundMe post.

The mother of two, who moved to Georgia from New York in 2021, was forced out of the home, which she said can’t be repaired due to the extensive damage. She remained thankful to be alive and noted that her daughter was on the way home from school when the tornado hit. The family would have celebrated their two-year anniversary in the home in May.

“Things like this only happen in movies, at least so I thought,” she wrote.

Credit: Derrick and Stephanie Lawrence

Credit: Derrick and Stephanie Lawrence

The Lawrences

Derrick Lawrence left work early to be with his wife Stephanie at their home in Griffin as tornadoes tore through Spalding County, according to a GoFundMe post created by a family friend. He managed to hunker down in a bathtub with his wife and their pets just minutes before a tornado struck.

The twister caused a tree to fall on a car, while another crashed into the garage roof and backyard deck, barely missing a 300-gallon propane tank, the fundraiser said. The family is seeking help to rebuild, with costs likely above the $15,000 that insurance will cover.

Credit: Donald Mays

Credit: Donald Mays

The Mayses

Donald Mays saw his mobile home destroyed when two trees crashed through it during the storms in Griffin, a GoFundMe post stated. The father of six said he purchased the home four years ago and put everything he had into it, including recently finished renovations.

The family, which did not have insurance, is now raising money for a place to rent.

“We lost it all today,” Mays wrote.

Credit: Katherine Brown

Credit: Katherine Brown

Katherine Brown

Katherine Brown was at her Griffin home around 4:45 p.m. that day as severe weather started to impact the area.

“I reasoned in my head that this house I was living in had been there for more than 60 years and no bad tornado was going to come along and tear it up if it hadn’t already,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Soon after, the power started to go on and off, and Brown said she started to hear loud bangs on the side and roof of the house. After each hit, the sound got louder, she said. With no phone service, Brown went into the bathtub and started to cry, she said.

“I just knew that I was going to die in that bathtub by myself,” she said.

Brown remarked how there was nowhere to go, or anyone to hold onto as the house started to shake. Soon after, she heard the sound of rain pouring into the house. Brown said the home suffered significant damage and she has lived with her sister in Peachtree City since the storm hit. The family said they need “a lot of help,” according to a GoFundMe post.

“I want my life back. I want my home back. I want my peace of mind back. I want to be happy again,” Brown said.

Credit: Katie Soto

Credit: Katie Soto

The Johnsons

Cassidy and Brian Johnson are trying to pick up the pieces. The recently married couple lost their LaGrange home and “almost everything” during the storm, according to a GoFundMe post.

They have a 10-month-old son and are raising money to get back on their feet. Brian’s last day in the U.S. Marine Corps is later this month, and the couple hope to start over and find a place to rent or purchase.