Memories still fresh five years after tornadoes cut through Middle Georgia

lfabian@macon.comMay 4, 2013 

Most people were asleep when Macon’s predawn sky turned black as pitch on May 11, 2008.

It’s always darkest before the dawn, they say, but that Mother’s Day it was never more true.

No one reported a funnel cloud dropping from the sky or saw it buzz saw across Bibb County, but some folks did see it coming.

Johnny Wingers, the former emergency management director for Macon-Bibb County, was already in the bunker adjacent to City Hall.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch that Saturday afternoon. By nightfall, nearly a dozen twisters sliced across northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, where six people died in an EF-4 storm in Ottawa County.

Wingers remembers talking to a National Weather Service forecaster shortly after 5:30 a.m. “It’s not if, it’s when. It’s coming to you,” Wingers recalled hearing about 15 minutes before radar indicated rotation at 5:50 a.m.

“I cut those sirens on and I said a prayer,” Wingers said. “Then everything went dead.”

More than 50 people were camping in Arrowhead Park at Lake Tobesofkee as the sirens wailed. They ran to the bathrooms before the tall pines started snapping.

The campers huddled in the concrete block buildings as lightning strobed in bursts that illuminated nature’s fury.

“There was a lot of crying and screaming,” camper Ricky Calvert told the next day.

“They thought it was going to be the end for them, so they were pretty scared.”

Wendell Smith’s camper shell blew right off his pickup before a large tree trunk smashed the back of the under-insured truck.

“It was like nothing you’d want to be around,” said Smith in the campground carpeted with tree trunks and limbs. The smell of pine sap filled the air.

“Everything we’ve got is gone right now,” the Lizella man said about 24 hours after the storm destroyed his camper, truck, car and Jeep.

Larry Kaase of Byron said it lasted about 30 seconds before the twister headed toward the old Macon State College, ruining 3,900 trees.

By that time, Wingers was hearing initial damage reports and thinking the worst.

“I could see dead people everywhere, but we were so lucky,” he said last month.

He said EMA volunteers must have gone through about 100 gallons of coffee in the long days that followed.

About 16 hours before the storm, Wingers was at Lake Tobesofkee for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office’s annual summer safety fair.

Lake Director Doug Furney was there, too. He said last week that the tornado did about $3 million in damages at the lake, a third of that at Arrowhead.

“What was amazing, with all the damage, there were no serious injuries or deaths,” Furney said.

It took about 16 months to repair and reopen Arrowhead Park. New plaques on the bathhouses denote their role in protecting the public.

“There’s no doubt it saved a lot of lives,” Furney said. “The only thing not destroyed was those two bathhouses.”

Arrowhead came back better than new. Insurance upgraded the 1960s era campground to 21st century standards to accommodate larger modern motor homes.

The whirling mass of 111-130 mph winds destroyed nearly 100 homes in Bibb County, caused major damage to 280 houses and affected 1,500 others over its 18-mile path.

Much of the county was without power for days as crews had to replace 500 broken utility poles.

The outages meant Mother’s Day dinners were on hold. Restaurants were closed.

No last minute shoppers could pick up gifts at Macon Mall, which was clipped by the tornado. Part of Parisian was torn away. Gusts dismantled play sets at Backyard Basics near the State Farmers Market and ripped open Carol’s Linens and J.D. Kinders furniture store.

A cinder block tire store was obliterated on Pio Nono Avenue near the corner of Eisenhower Parkway, which felt the storm’s full fury.

A damaged building in the old Westgate shopping center was finally demolished a couple of months ago, and a mangled mess of a metal billboard was removed at about the same time.

Two abandoned houses condemned after the storm in the 2900 block of Hollis Road haven’t been touched. A large tree still stretches across the broken roof of one of them.

The few damaged Macon State buildings on the 418-acre campus were repaired quickly, but regrowing the tree canopy will take decades at what is now known as Middle Georgia State College.

A few days after the storm, a landscape team tried to save some of the damaged trees, but most had to be cut down.

A massive replanting project now underway has received national recognition.

The Arbor Day Foundation awarded the Lawrence Enersen Award to Dr. Waddell Barnes last month for spearheading tree renewal.

The physician and avid botanist launched the planting of a wide variety of different species in themed sections known as the Waddell Barnes Botanical Gardens.

After wrecking Bloomfield, the twister skipped across the old fields and headed straight for Brenda Walton’s house on Riggins Mill Road. She had no idea what was about to hit.

Her 2-year-old grandson woke her up and as she was changing him, the roof started lifting off.

She grabbed him and a 4-year-old and got in the closet with a dog and cat.

When the tornado passed, Walton’s new picnic table, a Mother’s Day gift, was untouched. The flowers she and her sister bought for their mother also were still there.

The National Weather Service determined storm clouds unleashed 15 twisters that day, 10 across Middle Georgia.

The deadliest hit Laurens County, where other grandparents were not as fortunate.

Volunteer firefighter Wally Weaver got out shortly after daybreak to check for damage.

The children’s pastor at First Baptist Church had a few hours before he had to be at Sunday School. Word was spreading quickly on the radio about a possible tornado, so he drove up debris-littered U.S. 441.

He saw something out of the corner of his eye.

“It was a God thing,” said Weaver, who had never noticed the Clementses’ double-wide mobile home before. “It looked like somebody picked it up and rolled it over and wrapped it around a tree.”

He saw cars and feared people were inside.

“Can you hear me? Is anybody here?”

A little voice answered, “I’m here.”

Under an upside-side down red metal bed, 5-year-old Brinlee Easom was protected from the wall that could have crushed her.

Weaver tried to comfort her, but she started to cry.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m going to be late for Sunday School,” she tearfully told him.

He reassured her that he would be late, too, and it would be all right.

Brinlee said her little sister and grandparents were there somewhere.

In what Weaver called “another God thing,” 3-year-old Rilee Easom only suffered minor scratches.

“The little girl was sitting on top of the rubble, about 10 feet from me, just staring at me, not making a sound,” said Weaver, who moved to north Florida a few years ago.

With Brinlee still trapped, he took Rilee to his pickup and put his fire coat around her.

By that time, other firefighters were arriving and they found 46-year old Lisa Clements severely injured, but still breathing.

Her husband, Tracey, was already dead and was buried that Wednesday. Two days later, she died at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

“It still doesn’t even seem real sometimes,” Dublin’s Twila Mathis said Friday.

Not only was Lisa Clements her cousin, she was Mathis’ best friend.

“I still think about it every day. I’ve just never had anything hit me like this,” she said Friday.

Mathis was celebrating Mother’s Day on Tybee Island when she heard her friend’s trailer had been flattened. It was a miracle the girls survived, she said.

“It was just God protecting them. There’s just no way,” Mathis said.

A National Weather Service survey team determined three tornadoes hit Laurens County.

“It was a bad day,” said Don Bryant, Laurens County’s fire chief and EMA director.

So many people had no warning, Bryant said.

In recent years, the county has added a Code Red alert system that calls people about severe thunderstorms and tornadoes -- even in the dead of night.

“As big as Laurens County is, we couldn’t afford to put tornado sirens where everyone can hear them,” he said. “It’s made folks here a little more aware of the weather and makes us thankful for what we do have.”

Bibb County recently added its 57th siren at the corner of Tucker Road and Idleway Drive. Transmitters and radios are upgraded.

Current EMA Director Don Druitt said the county received nearly $4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for debris removal from five years ago.

The Emergency Operations Center has been transformed with the latest technology that gives public safety officials up to the minute information projected on a video wall and computer screens.

“These are all lessons learned from 2008,” Druitt said.

The county is divided into sectors and volunteers will immediately begin assessing damage once a storm has passed.

“Within four hours, I can show you the path of the tornado and whether it’s catastrophic or severe,” he said. “What took weeks for the county mapping office to put the track map together, we can do in seconds.”

Wingers, a veteran of the Great Flood of 1994 and the Mother’s Day tornado, doesn’t ever want the community to go through that kind of catastrophic damage again.

But he’ll never forget how folks united.

“I got cold bumps just thinking about how people helped each other,” Wingers said. “It just made you feel like this is the greatest city in the world.”

The memory of that Mother’s Day will never leave Wally Weaver, either.

Just the other night, as he was trying to sleep, thoughts filled his head of those little girls.

“I want to tell you, I didn’t do anything any other firefighter wouldn’t have done,” said the man who volunteered for about a dozen years in Laurens County. “That’s what we do. You take care of it and deal with it afterward.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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