On late March 25th and early March 26th, an EF-4 tornado spent 75 minutes on the ground, but the damage it caused to the city of Newnan, Georgia will take years to fully recover and rebuild.
Our attention spans are short after natural disasters strike. Oftentimes we hear about a disaster for a few days and then we move on assuming that houses, schools, and other buildings are rebuilt overnight.
The truth is the city of Newnan will never look the same and it could be years before it's fully rebuilt.
(Image of some of the destruction in Newnan, Georgia)
It’s almost 8 weeks later, here are a few unexpected things I've learned about the recovery process and the everyday struggles my community is going through:
1. The needs of tornado Victims are constantly evolving. Listen to what they need.
The morning after the tornado hit, our community came out in droves to donate food and supplies to the tornado victims. School was canceled but they housed, fed, and gave supplies to victims. In fact, places were so flooded with food and supplies that they had to halt donations due to storage concerns.
We had great intentions to take care of our residents who just lost everything in just a few minutes in the middle of the night. The donated tools, supplies, and food poured in. However, it didn't occur to us until later that the hotels they were now placed in didn't have kitchens. The pasta and canned goods were pointless without a stove or microwave. A local city councilwoman shared on her Facebook that people were more in need of gift cards to local restaurants, but didn't know how to ask or want to come off as ungrateful.
In short, as time goes on, the needs of the victims change. Up front emergency supplies like tarps and chainsaws are critical. Gift cards are flexible while folks go through temporary housing situations with limited kitchens. When they’re able to move out of the hotels and find homes to live in, they’ll then need donations like furniture and groceries. Needs evolve over time and that process can take weeks or months to fully play out.
2. Volunteer Work Needs to Be Organized with your Local Emergency Management Team
Everyone wanted to help! Immediately after the tornado, people were hopping in their cars or walking down their streets with chain saws to help cut people out of their homes or remove trees off homes and vehicles. We had so many volunteers showing up that we actually burdened the trained emergency professionals. Volunteers blocked our emergency teams made up of police, firefighters, and electricians that needed to get by and safely clear downed trees and power lines. Our local Police Department pleaded with people on social media to let the experts do their jobs.
Local volunteer groups changed and started to work directly with our emergency management team in which you had to text a certain number and they would then reach out when they needed you. When a volunteer request was accepted, they would send you the location, time, and what you'd be working on during your volunteer schedule so that it wouldn’t hinder the jobs of officials.
3. Schools will be closed for an extended period of time
At 3 AM on Friday, schools were announced to be closed through the following Tuesday. Surveys were sent out to school employees, bus drivers, and parents to see if they experienced road blockages and power outages that would prevent them from being able to get to the schools or complete online work. Based on the results of the survey, school closures were extended for two weeks.
Our local High School is destroyed and will take time and resources to rebuild. The high school students who have already faced so much change over the past year due to covid were split up between our two other high schools to complete the rest of the year online.
Even though in school was cancelled for the year for Newnan High School students, we rallied and donated prom dresses and tuxedos for the students. They deserved a special night to celebrate their accomplishments and have fun after the past extremely tough year of changes.
4. Covid doesn't disappear
Tornado victims took to social media and politely asked folks to wear masks when volunteering. Some had admitted that they hadn't been wearing a mask either, but had just tested positive for covid and wouldn't be able to meet with the insurance adjuster. Luckily, they had a family member outside of their household that went to meet the adjuster for them but said that many others wouldn't be that lucky.
It's important to help each other, but we should remember that covid doesn't take a back seat when natural disasters happen. People are at greater risk as they have had to leave their homes, interact with more people, and bounce from one place to another with their families increasing their exposure opportunities to Covid-19.
5. Escalating costs and shortages burden our community
Even two months later, there are 400 families displaced, more than 1700 homes damaged, and more than 2500 children displaced from their schools with nowhere to go.
FEMA approved funding for our public entities but denied funding for individual assistance. Families are struggling daily as they face these shortages:
The housing shortage - People have nowhere to go in our community as there are rental shortages. Many are looking to stay in campers, but unable to afford or find campers to live in.
The escalating cost of construction materials - High prices are causing insurance coverage gaps making more people under insured.
The materials shortage- Increases the timeline for repairs and rebuilding causing greater financial burdens for longer periods of time than most people can afford.
Insurance and personal savings are running out as people have been in hotels for 7 weeks. People are having to turn to nonprofits to help them afford shelter.
Our councilwoman, Cynthia Jenkins who advocates for our community and writes in response to FEMA’s decision to deny individual assistance, “The extenuating circumstances of our situation cannot be measured in terms of a set of criteria that never took into consideration the perfect storm of a housing crisis, construction crisis, economic hits, and a pandemic met with an EF4 tornado. We need help and if "Help is on the Way", then it needs to show up soon.“
What can you do?
So the next time you hear about a disaster like a tornado, hurricane, or wildfire and want to help, I encourage you to take a few extra minutes to find out what that community really needs. Consider a community fund that is in constant communication with the victims and their evolving needs. If you're closer in to those affected, you can consider a unique donation opportunity like prom dresses to local students or donating furniture from your closet to help furnish a temporary apartment or camper for someone in need.
Most importantly, consider the long game of disaster recovery. The hype may die down after a few days once the news crews leave, but the need is very much still there, take it from me. While we are in a much better place than we were the morning after when those photos were taken, 400 families have no home to return to and 1700 families are coping with damage that causes basement flooding or power outages with every spring thunderstorm.