This Life with Gracie: Dunwoody resident remembers night 1998 tornado destroyed her home

Laurel Sybilrud, 69, speaks at her Dunwoody residence almost 20 years after a tornado ripped through the Fontainebleu Forest neighborhood and destroyed her family's house, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. In Spring of 1998, a late-night tornado destroyed Laurel and her neighbors houses. The wind during the storm was so severe that it carried debris from Laurel's house to Greenville, S.C. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

On Monday, the 20th anniversary of a deadly tornado that destroyed her home and the Dunwoody neighborhood she’d called family since the 1970s, Laurel Sybilrud, 69, will be 250 miles away somewhere on the Satilla River.

That isn’t to say she won’t be thinking of her daughter Libby, Fontainebleau Forest and the families who live there. She most certainly will.

But 1998 hit Sybilrud hard. Soon after burying her mother in March, the tornado tore through Fontainebleau, ripping through homes, destroying the neighborhood swim and tennis club, and leveling the forest of trees that made the community a shady preserve.

Instead of reliving that Easter Sunday weekend, Sybilrud will leave the commemorations to her husband Mike and the rest of her Fontainebleau family while she does what she loves instead – go kayaking.

“There is no more peaceful place than paddling on a river,” she said recently. “I’ve often thought when you look at nature from a river you have to believe in God and without him, I’d have no hope.”

Dunwoody and Fontainebleau Forest, in particular, were the hardest hit by the storm that left a path of destruction a mile wide in some areas and 30 miles long. More than 400,000 homes and businesses in North Georgia were without power for days.

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In allthe storm left 36 people dead across two states, 273 injured, and property damage totaling more than $3 million. Although the Sybilrud's home was destroyed, there is no denying they were among the lucky few.

When the storm struck, Laurel Sybilrud was en route home from Ohio, where she had driven to retrieve some items from her mother’s estate.

She had made it as far as Kennesaw when her daughter, Libby, 18 at the time, called in a panic.

The storm is really bad, Libby told her.

I'll be there soon, Laurel said.

She had already been driving through blinding rain for an hour, and it seemed to get worse with every passing minute. It was just after midnight when Laurel arrived home. Libby was scared but safe in her bedroom.

As they sat on the bed talking about Laurel’s trip, lightning flashed. Every clap of thunder grew louder and more intense. The wind swirled around the house, sounding like a jet engine.

Just as they decided to move to a safer place, the house went black.

They managed to find their way to the hallway between a bath and laundry room, the family’s safe place in case of a storm. There they stood holding on to one another.

“The change in air pressure was dramatic,” Laurel recalled. “My sinuses hurt. My ears hurt. My husband was out of town on business and I felt helpless to protect our daughter. We could hear trees falling.”

As soon as the roar ceased, she knew they needed to get out. Laurel sent Libby to get her purse from the kitchen. The ceiling gone, she could see clear to the sky.

Downed trees blocked the exits so they headed to the garage, and in a panic, they broke a window and climbed through. Libby cut her hand in the process.

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Outside they surveyed the damage and in the darkness found one house still in tact. The Newsomes welcomed them inside.

Sometime around 5 a.m., after accounting for everyone in their cul de sac, they each found a lawn chair and cleared a path at the end of the drive way to sit.

“It sounds silly now to do that, but it had stopped raining, the stars were out and the smell of (natural) gas that had been in the air was gone,” Laurel remembered. “We just sat there, talking, wondering what to do next.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

When daylight arrived, they began surveying the damage. Neighbors who had chain saws started cutting down trees. They walked house to house to see how they could help. When an ambulance arrived to take a neighbor to the hospital, the Sybilruds hitched a ride there, too. Libby’s hand needed stitches.

When they returned home, they discovered everything was either gone or soaking wet. A friend found clothes for Libby and drove her to Florida where she’d planned to spend Easter break with friends.

Laurel and Mike, who returned home the next day, headed to a hotel.

“We lost 90 percent of our belongings,” Laurel said. “Our home was a total loss, condemned and torn down.”

A month later, Laurel returned to Dunwoody United Methodist Church where she has taught now for 25 years. It would take a year and two insurance agents before the Sybilruds could begin to rebuild their home and their lives.

Looking back, Laurel describes the experience as “character building.”

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It was the first time she could remember not being able to protect one of her children but also a reminder that God is in control and will provide what she needs.

The suppers, the educational sessions with FEMA, the crisis counselors, all made available by area churches, proved invaluable to Laurel.

“The churches were incredible, coming out and removing trees and limbs and hauling out wet furniture to the curb,” she said. “That’s one reason many rebuilt in the neighborhood and did not leave. It’s also one reason why the neighborhood is still prospering.”

The Sybilruds’ new home is a lovely four-bedroom, still on Fleur de Lis cul de sac. But unlike their first, it has a basement room with reinforced walls and no windows, Laurel’s preferred place to be on stormy nights.

“Storms still bother me,” she said.

It bothers her some, too, to recall the events of that night long ago.

“I just don’t want to relive it,” she said. “A lot has happened, a lot of good things. That’s my focus. Both daughters have gotten married. I have six grandchildren. I’ve continued to teach here with my friends.”

And as often as she can, she returns to the river for a little kayaking because that’s where Laurel Sybilrud is guaranteed to feel the presence of the Lord, her hope, even in the midst of a storm.

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