Deal tours South Georgia storms’ devastation, says more help is coming

Gov. Nathan Deal told the shell-shocked residents of the southwest Georgia communities ravaged by storms what they wanted to hear on Wednesday: More help is on the way.

Now it’s up to politicians to live up to the promise.

The governor joined dozens of state leaders to tour the devastation from the storms that killed at least 15 people in South Georgia over the weekend and turned rural towns such as Adel — with a population about 5,000 — into the epicenter of a disaster.

They drove through Sunshine Acres, the trailer home park where seven of the victims died, many side by side with loved ones. Children's toys were still strewn on faded lawns. Lonely brick pillars poked out from obliterated homes. A life's belongings, smashed to smithereens.

“Total devastation,” a visibly shaken Deal said after touring the mobile home site. “It’s hard to imagine that anyone escaped from that.”

More than 770 state employees are clearing debris and providing storm relief, state lawmakers have set aside an additional $5 million to help with the recovery, and Deal said Wednesday that the federal government had approved emergency aid for a tornado that struck Albany on Jan. 2.

But local leaders are hoping President Donald Trump’s administration sends more help. Quickly.

“We’re helping the victims meet their immediate needs,” said Eric Gordon, a pastor at Adel First Assembly. “But we need help for the long-term needs. Where are they going to live long-term? Where are they going to sleep next week?”

The community is already responding in force. The fellowship hall of Gordon’s church was crammed to the rafters with donations, so local leaders asked a grocer to open up his 60,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Adel for contributions.

Soon, more than a dozen churches banded together to marshal the donations. The building is now chock-full of food, clothes, toiletries and other supplies.

At the warehouse, dozens of volunteers in yellow and orange vests took truckloads of pillows, bedding and other essentials and carted them to rows of shelves. An entire wall was stacked with water bottles. Piles of shoes stacked up in one back office, stuffed animals and toys in another.

Claire Appleford, 13, has spent hours here since Sunday, helping to stock the shelves with items and arrange hot meals for victims and their families.

“I know how I would feel if everything I loved got ripped away from me,” she said. “I don’t know if I could even get myself together. So I just wanted to help out.”

“It’s amazing, for a small town, how we’ve come together,” said Jenny Bullard, a 19-year-old who escaped with just a cut on her hand after her brick home was torn to ribbons by the storm.

Chase Daughtrey, the Cook County probate judge, said the state response has been “beyond phenomenal.” Georgia first-responders were on the scene just hours after the storm struck, and he’s expecting more help to come flooding in. The jury is still out on the feds, he added.

“If we are sitting here in four to six weeks and we haven’t heard anything from (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), then the frustration will mount quickly,’ he said. “But we have no issues at this point because of the state response.”

In nearby Albany, though, the tension is already boiling over. Some residents felt forgotten after the Jan. 2 tornado. This weekend's storms — which killed four people in Dougherty County —  left the region in further need of assistance.

"President Donald Trump ran on a platform of being a man of action, one who will cut through regulations," read an editorial from The Albany Herald. "We hope that is one campaign promise he will keep in the case of this regional disaster. If ever action was needed, this is the time."

As if on cue, Trump called the governor on Wednesday as he was touring the storm damage. It was a cordial conversation, Deal said, and the president remarked to him about the “record time” in approving the request for aid for the Jan. 2 storm.

In turn, Deal asked the president to swiftly approve emergency aid for the deadly storms that struck this weekend.

“This is my seventh year as governor of this state. And we’ve had other tragedies in the past. This is the first time I’ve spoken with the president about these types of circumstances,” Deal said of the conversation with Trump, the second about the storms since they struck. “I’m very pleased with his attention to these challenges.”

For now, the painstaking process of cleaning up from the storms continues. Cleaning up the debris strewn across vast, sparsely populated southwest Georgia counties could take weeks. Rebuilding will take longer.

“Even in hard times — especially in hard times — you find out how important it is in communities like this to find neighbors helping neighbors,” Deal said, breaking into tears. “Georgians, we have a lot to be proud of.”

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