BARNESVILLE -- Our stretch of Georgia had already been socked by its share of storms this spring. Atmospheric uppercuts had claimed lives, creamed houses, crushed cars, even closed schools.
A sure-enough earthquake from above.
The tornado that all but erased parts of a neighborhood along a country lane on Barnesville’s northwest side early Thursday unfurled from the tail end of a deadly wave of meteorologic fury that, over two days, stampeded the South.
All told, at least 290 people died along a trail of devastation that stretched from Mississippi to Virginia, with more than two-thirds of the deaths in Alabama alone.
Closer to home, the middle-of-the-night monster walloped scores of houses and killed a Lamar County husband and wife, leaving the little girl they’d adopted with no parents.
One of the dead couple’s relatives, his expression numbed to a dull stare late Thursday morning, gazed out at what was left of the family’s demolished doublewide.
Then Roy Butts lowered his voice and described how his kin next door had found 8-year-old Chloie Gunter wandering in her yard in the darkness about half past midnight, and her telling them, “Mama blew away.”
Ellen S. Gunter, 63, and Paul Howard Gunter, 73, were found dead amid debris in their backyard at 437 Grove St. on a few-acres-wide spread where two other homes -- both obliterated -- belong to other family members.
The scene at the Gunters’ hillside homestead was one of breathtaking despair, their world reduced to loose change. There was a quarter perched atop their crumbled, cinder-block foundation. There were nickels in the yard. Sheet music for “Feelings,” the hit from the late 1970s, was wrapped around a tree branch that’d been stripped of its bark.
It was the kind of sight that makes folks say -- as many of them here did -- “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
VCR tape, sucked from cassettes, was strung all over what remained of the trees, streamers of black decoration for the saddest of landscapes. A Visa card that belonged to a man across the road touched down near the Gunters’ back steps. Nearby, a Lincoln Continental crash-landed upside down along a treeline.
“If I could imagine a huge bomb going off, I don’t know if it would be this bad,” Butts said.
Some of the Gunters’ neighbors who’d been tossed about -- in some instances even hurled from their residences -- survived. The three most seriously hurt were taken to a hospital in Griffin, but Lamar County Sheriff Larry Waller said, “They’re fine.”
An estimated 1,200 Lamar residents were without power and, for some anyway, electric service wasn’t expected to be restored until Saturday.
The same wrecking ball of weather that slammed into Barnesville’s outskirts early Thursday mangled rooftops across the midstate and caved in part of a chicken house in Lamar County.
But Grove Street, situated along a ridge of rolling terrain about 12 miles southwest of the High Falls exit on Interstate 75, may well have taken the meanest punch from the EF-3-rated twister, with winds of 140 mph.
Dennis Strom’s house, a few hundred yards southwest of the Gunter place, absorbed a body blow.
If his 8-year-old daughter, McKenna, hadn’t awakened to use the restroom and seen a spider crawling in the tub, his family may not be alive. The spider spooked her into rousting them.
“When she did,” Strom said, “my wife heard the sirens and we immediately got in the hall.”
Then the ground trembled.
After that came the house-swallowing suction.
Five-year-old Charlie Strom, huddled with his family and their miniature schnauzer, said, “I’m gonna be brave,” while his mother, Nealy, prayed, “God, please protect us” and they all spoke of how much they loved one another.
“When I could see the house being hit, I thought that was it,” Dennis Strom said. “I thought we were all fixing to go to heaven.”
While flecks of insulation swirled, stinging their eyes and flying into their mouths, Dennis Strom peeked up and watched his roof “peel back like a sardine can.”
“When it would lightning, you could see objects fly by you,” he said, “but when it wouldn’t lightning, it was just dark. You could hear everything breaking, you could hear stuff crackling.”
It was over in maybe 90 seconds.
Up the road, across a patch of now-leafless woods on other side of a slope, Karen Gatons’ house survived the tornado in better shape. Even if there was a tree limb lodged in her living room. Hers was one of the few houses on the street with a mailbox still standing.
Gatons’ carport didn’t fare so well. It disappeared. Poof.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “You can’t explain tornadoes. You just have to have a healthy respect for them.”
Across the street, another woman’s brick house was in ruins. Exterior walls collapsed. The roof, sheared off, had sailed away. A friend from Monroe County dropped in Thursday morning to console the resident.
While the homeowner waded into the debris of what had been her kitchen, the friend, Maggie Cameron, stood in the driveway and watched.
Then she turned and took in a horizon that offered disheartenment in every direction.
“It’s nasty-looking, isn’t it?” she said.
And the change of seasons isn’t over.
The three-year anniversary of the mighty Mother’s Day tornadoes is still more than a week off.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.