Residents remember storm, count blessings

When the predawn sky howled and the threshers of wind chewed miles-wide holes in Macon’s west and south sides a year ago, what could have been the bleakest of Mother’s Days broke ugly and gave way to the clear-bluest of days.

How no one in town died in that dark instant of tree-flinging fury still has folks shrugging their shoulders, thanking the Lord.

In the weeks and months that followed, renters would scramble to find new addresses that did not come furnished with crash-landed oak trunks in the living rooms and 80-year-old pines keeled on the rooftops.

Other residents turned to kinfolk, to church volunteers, to down-the-street neighbors who, up to then, they had scarcely been introduced to. For many of them, the only hope of patching the wreckage came in the form of helping hands from relative strangers.

Johnny Taylor, a 42-year-old FedEx courier, lives on a hilltop a little less than a mile east of Interstate 475. Trees from down the road sailed into his blue-trimmed, one-story brick house.

“I guess with my house being at the top of the street, it just dropped them here,” Taylor said last week.

His house, as a neighbor puts it, “was creamed.”

From the edge of his front yard on Wynnwood Drive, you can see Bloomfield Road a quarter-mile or so to the west. Before the storm, treetops blocked that view. Taylor misses the shade.

For two months after the May 11 tempest, Taylor and his wife stayed with relatives while their house was put back together.

He refers to the Sunday storm as “the day,” the day when “it smelled like Christmas on Mother’s Day. ... Pine trees everywhere.”

After that, Taylor said, “The whole summer was shot. It was rough at least till Christmas.”

He figures he had less than $50,000 in property smooshed. He points out neighbors who had it worse, ones down the street whose homes’ foundations were rocked, fences smashed.

A year after the devastation, from the outside at least, Taylor’s place appears to be back to normal.

But, he said, “You can’t get it back the way it was.”

* * * *

Tree limbs are still falling.

Twisted and mangled ones that were all but wrenched from their trunks and left hanging by a shred, vines and luck are still hitting the ground in Johnnie Murner’s Downing Circle neighborhood.

Murner lives off Canterbury Road in a subdivision bounded by Eisenhower Parkway, Pio Nono Avenue and Southwest High School. The neighborhood, behind the old Westgate Mall, was built on some of the highest ground in south Macon. Last May, it became a tornado’s speed bump.

Shingles were stripped from Murner’s roof and snapped-off sweet-gum branches smacked into his house. He couldn’t get his truck out of his driveway for three days.

“Got a new roof out of it,” said Murner, 63, who works in the produce department at a grocery store. “After the initial cleanup, for us, it’s been pretty good. The insurance took care of getting the roof fixed. ... But it wasn’t fun.”

To cope, Murner said, “I didn’t really think about coming back from it. I was just about getting through it.”

* * * *

Around the bend from Murner’s place, north and west up Canterbury toward the Academy Sports mart, 85-year-old Edward Rumney was working in his front yard the other day.

The retired aircraft mechanic lived to tell when a tornado-tossed pine top exploded through his roof and just missed his head, hammering parts of three rooms.

Gazing out at the tree line now, Rumney spoke of the pine canopy that once shrouded his and his neighbors’ houses. Theirs is a landscape reduced to stumps.

“It looks like it just happened,” he said.

The Albany native’s wife of 52 years died about six months before the storm. Losing her was tough enough. Then Mother Nature piled on.

But he figures the heavens “gave me another chance.”

As for his part of town, Rumney isn’t so sure.

He thinks the area has become a forgotten end of the city. There are plenty of locals who never saw the disaster that, in some cases, took place five or 10 minutes from their own front doors.

Westgate Mall dried up two decades ago. A Home Depot and a Media Play have since come and gone on the same site.

In ways maybe unseen, Rumney, who moved there in the late 1960s, said the tornado “hurt a lot.”

“It didn’t kill anyone directly,” he said, “but ... a lot of these people who were renting, they moved on out.”

* * * *

Less than a mile to the south off Rice Mill Road, the Jefferson Hills neighborhood that lies across Pio Nono Avenue from the Roses department store and backs up to the Rocky Creek basin was home to some of the twister’s meanest chain-sawing. Trees were clear cut from above.

Latonya Mallory’s house on Travis Boulevard was smothered when an oak as big around as an old wagon wheel slammed across her front porch and a car in the yard.

“People said they didn’t even know there was a house here,” Mallory recalled.

Up on Pio Nono, across from the Burger King, Jimmy Oglesby of Somerset Drive figures he and his neighbors took the tornado’s punch the best they could. For some, the lights were out for two, three, four nights. For others it was longer.

Oglesby’s house, down a ridge from Krispy Kreme and Krystal, survived blows and swats from limbs. Pine branches caved in his pickup truck’s windshield. His yard, like dozens around him, looked like a log truck had spilled a load in it.

“Everybody has worked together, trying to get it back to where it was,” Oglesby, 56, said. “Everybody seems to me like they’re getting back on their feet.”

He said he has come to know his neighbors “more than I ever did.”

* * * *

And, no, it didn’t sound like a freight train roaring through.

William Holmes would know. He worked on the railroad for 38 years. The cyclone that sheared off parts of his roof and ravaged his lawn rang up about $27,000 in damage.

Holmes, 72, was once a firefighter on the Nancy Hanks passenger train to Atlanta.

“I know what a train sounds like, and this was more like a big fan changing speeds,” he said.

Holmes lives at the west end of Wynnwood Drive, just east of Bloomfield Road, about a mile south of Eisenhower.

The wind body-slammed barrel-thick sweet gums across his backyard. He couldn’t get the cars out of his carport for three days. Holmes used the night-fishing lights on his boat, ones powered by car batteries, to light his house. He and his wife cooked on a pair of Coleman camping stoves.

“We fed some of the neighbors,” he said.

“We were just so blessed. If you had seen this street that morning. ... The devastation was unbelievable. That morning, I met the mayor up at the end of the street and he said, ‘Mr. Holmes, y’all got a mess up here.’ But I said, ‘You have to look at the positive side. Not a one of my neighbors got hurt.’ ”

At the other end of Wynn-wood, the house where Willie Jenkins, a gospel singer, lives came through the storm pretty much unscathed. His mailbox, though, took a shot from some flying object. What, Jenkins isn’t sure.

But Jenkins has left the mailbox the way it was that morning, tipping, leaning toward the street as if taking a bow.

“I’m gonna let it stay there for a reminder,” he said. “To let everybody know (God) is still at work.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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