Brianna Bledsoe had a simple message when she met Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday: “Please come help us, please.”
The handshake with Kemp was a quick break for the 18-year-old Talbotton high school senior, who along with her family spent the day digging around the wreckage of her grandfather’s home.
In many ways, Talbot County was lucky. Just 30 miles west in Alabama, almost two dozen people lost their lives to a twister the likes of which the region had never seen. As of Monday night, Georgia had no known fatalities.
Still, the scene was grim: Cars smashed and flipped on their sides, roofs shredded and children’s shoes scattered throughout wreckage.
“There was tremendous damage here,” Kemp said, standing in a gymnasium-turned-shelter a few feet away from a man sleeping under a Red Cross blanket.
Keith Stellman, head forecaster for the National Weather Service, said initial reports clocked winds between 125 and 140 mph — meaning the storm produced a strong EF-2 tornado or a low-end EF-3. He said Talbotton, less than a two-hour drive southwest of Atlanta, got the worst of it in Georgia.
The storm leveled nearly 20 properties in the city, but it also took things that make a house a home, such as the Scarface memorabilia that Jaborey Jenkins had saved, hoping it would be worth something someday. He found a poster and a jacket Monday near his parents’ now-flattened house, but the rest was missing. Fortunately, his parents weren't home. They were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
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Many in the area were amazed no one died in the storm.
“Thankfully right now we haven’t had any fatalities, and we are blessed by that,” Kemp said, “and continue and pray to hope that that will be the case.”
Speaking in Washington, President Donald Trump weighed in.
“We have a call in to Brian Kemp, and we let them know and — the governor and everybody — that we're with you 100 percent,” Trump said.
Kemp said earlier in the day that the storms destroyed about two dozen homes throughout west Georgia and damaged about 40 others, along with wrecking several businesses.
“We certainly dodged a bullet and we are thankful for that,” Kemp said. “It doesn’t look like it will rise to the level of a federal disaster, but we’re monitoring.”
Kemp told Bledsoe he would help in any way they needed and urged them to keep warm, which folks were doing by huddling around a barrel burning wood from their former homes.
Bledsoe said somewhere in the mess was her principal’s trophy and her grandfather’s military medals. Her grandfather was in Chicago, another of the residents out of harm’s way when the twister hit.
Further down the block, Wayne Smith also dug through history.
Smith, a 53-year-old in the construction business, said he had just put an $8,000 roof on a good friend’s home a week and a half ago. Now, as it had been when he started, the fresh lumber was strewn everywhere.
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The friend doesn’t live in the home and no one was inside at the time, which Smith said is good because “everything that (was) upstairs is gone.”
The shell of the house sat surrounded by trees snapped in half and covered in insulation, looking like a Dr. Seuss creation.
Nearby, Smith pulled a tattered American flag from a pile of cracked wood.
The house had been in the family for two generations, and the owner is a gunsmith who had a shop out back.
“We don’t even know where the building is,” Smith said.
The first thing Smith did was clear the firearms from the wreckage. What he’s more worried about is all the chemicals the gunsmith stored to strip metals. Smith wasn’t sure if he needed to call officials to declare it a hazmat situation, but he didn’t like the smell and told people not to go near it.
Leigh Ann Erenheim, head of emergency services for Talbot County, said the worst of the storm-related injuries was a resident brought to the hospital with a broken leg.
She heard of a family that rode out the storm in the bathtub of their single-wide trailer home.
But her biggest worry Monday was for those without power or proper shelter, as below-freezing temperatures are set to hit the area overnight.
Erenheim said 30 people used the Red Cross shelter Sunday, with 13 staying overnight, but she expects that will increase Monday night because of the coming chill.
“It’s going to get cold, so that’s our biggest concern: make sure people stay warm,” she said.
Erenheim said she doesn’t have a sense of state aid because all the damage assessments aren’t completed. But no matter what it is, she said the city knows it could have been so much worse.
“I do consider us very blessed,” she said. “… The Lord had his hand on us, watching out for us.”
-Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists Greg Bluestein, Alyssa Pointer and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.
HOW TO HELP:
The Red Cross already has teams on the ground in both Georgia and Alabama. The relief organization began sending damage assessment teams Monday to hard-hit areas including Talbot County, Ga., said Sherry Nicholson, a Georgia regional Red Cross spokesperson. The teams will comb through neighborhoods distributing supplies, food and will help with clean-up.
Shelters are already springing up, with the Red Cross opening one in Talbotton at Central High School. A warming station opened early Monday afternoon in Cairo, Ga., at the Grady County Agri-Center, for residents who are without heat or power, said Nicholson.
“It’s likely that will eventually turn into a shelter,” she said. “Power outages are a concern. Can people stay in their homes when the temperatures drop like this?”
People who want to contribute to the relief effort can do so through the Red Cross at www.redcross.org or 1-800-RED-CROSS.
-Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Rosalind Bentley contributed to this article.
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