By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Editor | Published April 15, 2021
NEWNAN–In a matter of minutes a powerful nighttime tornado in late March destroyed businesses and homes in western Coweta county, leaving many families without a place to live.
The EF-4 tornado crossed into the county at 11:56 p.m. on March 25, also causing significant damage to the public school system’s oldest high school, Newnan High, and one of its elementary schools, Atkinson Elementary.
Coweta and Georgia Emergency Management officials say the storm impacted 1,744 homes with 120 houses uninhabitable and 70 destroyed.
Deacon Steve Swope, of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Newnan, is encouraging other parish communities in the archdiocese to consider second collections or to adopt the community to meet specific and future needs.
“We are in it for the long run,” said Deacon Swope about recovery efforts.
The deacon spent Palm Sunday helping with clean-up and covering roofs with tarps.
“This is my Mass today,” he remembered thinking.
Bishop Joel Konzen, SM, toured the city and met some of the families affected on Holy Thursday, guided by Deacon Swope and local officials.
Newnan High’s 2,300 students will not be able to return to in-person instruction this year, perhaps longer. Initial concerns included feeding the students who had been receiving free meals at schools.
Due to a groundswell of immediate support, water and clothing needs have been met, but community agencies, including the local conference of St. Vincent de Paul, are looking to the future as some homes will take a minimum of six months to repair and a year or more to rebuild.
Coweta’s St. Katharine Drexel Conference of St. Vincent de Paul has been helping displaced families with paying for hotel rooms, which can run $600 a week.
“We’ve already spent $6,000 this month,” said Deacon Swope on April 5.
He said they still hope to meet the needs of people who come to them for non-tornado related assistance such as job loss or illness, but funds are being quickly depleted.
The deacon said the community has rallied, and he commended the support offered by other churches in the form of debris clean up and kindnesses shown.
“One of the local Protestant churches came together and got Easter baskets for all the children staying in hotels,” he said.
The Coweta Community Foundation, a Newnan based nonprofit, is helping families meet their deductibles for insurance so home repairs can begin.
Backpack Buddies and Bridging the Gap are local nonprofits working to feed people.
Father Terry Crone, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene, has been delivering gift cards on behalf of the St. Vincent de Paul conference.
St. Peter Church in LaGrange and St. Matthew Church in Tyrone have already contributed to aid efforts through second collections at their parishes. Sacred Heart Church in Hartwell is in the process of collecting items specifically requested by families.
Nighttime tornadoes carry a greater potential or risk for loss of life. One man died in the aftermath of the tornado from a heart attack as he checked on his daughter.
Volunteers have heard countless stories of people escaping to one area of their home with only seconds to spare, as the rooms they just left were destroyed by falling trees or wind.
Alex Garza, longtime parishioner of St. George Church in Newnan, gathered his family into the cast-iron bathtub in his Timberland Trail home, one of the most devastated areas off Smokey Road.
A phone alert warned him of the arriving storm, and he turned on the television to learn more. When the meteorologist said, “I’ve never seen one that big,” the power went off.
He and wife Millie, their daughter Natalie, and a family member visiting from Virginia got in the tub. Garza opened the door at one point.
“The suction was tremendous, he said. “It sounded like a tremendous hail storm. Then, it got super quiet.”
He heard neighbors calling out to one another and yelling in the dark. One neighbor approached him, and said “Alex, I don’t have a house.”
An older couple living near them went back to sleep after hearing the storm and awoke to find a tree through their home right outside the bedroom.
“It was a monster pine,” said Garza.
His neighbors, a younger family with their baby, 5-year old and two dogs, got into their fiberglass tub just in time.
“They hopped into it,” said Garza, and the tornado “obliterated everything around that core.”
The young couple lost their vehicles as well. Six to eight homes in that vicinity were demolished.
“You can basically see the path,” said Garza as he paused to take a call from his insurance company.
Garza heard of an elderly man hurt by a nail being driven into his back, but no other injuries.
“If you think about it, the whole town is a miracle,” he said.
The Garzas’ A-frame house will need the roof rebuilt, and is not livable at the moment due to two gaping holes in the kitchen area and damage to the rear of the home.
“This house was made so well. The old home held,” said Garza.
The family lived in a hotel for a few days and they are now situated in an apartment. They may move to another as it’s going to take four to six months for repairs to be complete.
“We’ve been here since 1980. I wouldn’t trade this place for nothing,” he said of his home and community.
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, people were there with chainsaws, and church groups brought food and water.
“The initial group blew me away. They never stopped,” said Garza.
He told the parents who had their children helping what a great example they were setting.
“We never wanted for anything,” said Garza. “It’s reaffirmed my faith in people”