By REBECCA HAZEN
On April 27, 2011, ten years ago, a tornado outbreak occurred in the southeast, with an EF3 tornado striking just south of downtown Trenton in the evening.
According to weather.gov, three separate tornados struck Dade County that day, with an EF1 at 8:40 a.m., which damaged Dade Elementary School, the EF3, and another EF1 at 7:50 p.m. The EF3 tornado, with winds of 150 miles per hour, moved through Dade County at approximately 5:35 p.m. That tornado formed in Alabama, and remained on the ground for about 40 miles. Two people died in the county. Community members reflected on that day, and how far they’ve come since then.
“We had a tornado hit the elementary school first thing that morning. It was small but it tore the awning off. It surprised everyone,” County Executive Ted Rumley said.
Rumley noted that Director of Public Works Billy Massengale and other men were up on the mountain at Bible Camp Road because there were a lot of downed trees in that area.
“I’ve got a monitor in my truck and I was watching the weather. They said, ‘We’re fixing to take a hit in Dade County.’ I called Billy and said they needed to get off the mountain. This was right around 5 p.m.,” Rumley said.
Rumley and the others gathered downstairs at the Health Department and were watching outside in the parking lot.
“It looked just like a spring rain coming off the mountain. The wind wasn’t blowing that bad, but I could see the front coming,” Rumley said.
Rumley continued, “Billy said, ‘Look at those birds flying around,’ and I told him “‘That’s pieces of people’s houses.’”
After it blew through, Rumley and others went to see where they could help out.
“Moore’s Funeral Home was pretty much gone. All of the [Village Green] apartments were gone. Brown Tires on the mountain was gone,” Rumley said. “It looked like a horror story.”
Rumley said that what saved a lot of people is that Trenton had just started an alert system. For those who signed up, it gave them about five to 10 minutes warning time.
“We were out of power here for about a week or so. The transformers for Trenton were wiped out. It was a gloomy, awful time,” Rumley said. “We didn’t have food. All of the restaurants were closed.”
“We had help come in immediately. Within 45 minutes to an hour, we had about 25 or more ambulances come in. By midnight that night, we had over 100 Georgia Power trucks here. American Red Cross was set up by the high school. FEMA sent a team here to start evaluating. We were glad to have them, but FEMA was hard to work with. There was so much red tape just to start the process,” Rumley said.
It’s a day that Bobby Dunn, ranger III with the Georgia Forestry Commission in Dade County, will never forget, especially seeing as it was his first unofficial day.
“I interviewed and already had my start date. I was working for the town of Lookout Mountain when the tornados hit. A lot of us lived in Dade County, so the boss allowed us to leave. I came down the mountain, and said ‘Hey what do we need to do?”
Dunn, and two others, Marcus and Tawn, checked things out in north Dade, before being called back to Trenton because of the impending second tornado.
“We all headed back to Trenton. As we were coming around the square, Tawn saw someone by the jail that he knew. We were all sitting in the parking lot and talking,” Dunn said.
The sheriff came out and told them that they needed to get inside.
“We were all in the jail, watching it come through on the TVs. We saw a trampoline come through the square parking lot. It was something,” Dunn said.
There’s no telling what could have happened if Dunn, Marcus and Tawn had gotten back to the Forestry Commission office.
Dunn continued, “If we had been at the office, if Marcus had not stopped … It would have been one heck of a ride.”
The tornado ended up knocking the office off of its foundation by three feet. Dunn also recalled that the windows in all the trucks were blown out. He had a locked tool box in the back of his truck. The tool box was open and everything was gone.
“It was just chaos from there on. We started getting on the phone and calling our supervisors. Georgia Forestry started mobilizing resources,” Dunn said.
Since then, the Forestry Commission has a brand new office located just south of the sports complex.
“We went from two truck bays to five bays. We got all brand new tools. If you look at what we’ve got now, we’re proud of it. Knock on wood I hope I never see another tornado again,” Dunn said.
Brown’s Tire Pros, located on Sand Mountain, was one of the businesses that was destroyed by the tornado.
“That morning we had a small one come through. The sky was really weird. There was stuff in the sky twirling around. Our whole building was okay at the time. My parents’ house lost every tree in their yard,” Phillip Brown, owner of Brown’s Tire Pros, remembered.
They started cleaning up, and they heard that another tornado was possibly going to come through. They gathered at his parent’s house with his wife and three kids, directly across the street from the business.
“It came and it completely took our roof off, took all the windows out. Tore it up really badly. Our tire store was a total loss. It felt like it lasted forever, but it was probably only a minute. It was a really scary feeling. I remember we were in a state of shock for a few days,” Brown said.
In business since 1984, it took them five and a half months to rebuild and reopen, Brown said.
Just a few days after the tornado, while still cleaning up, they were back to work in a sense, supplying tires for trailers for a tree service company working for FEMA.
“It was a lot of heart ache, sweat and work to get everything going back. I live beside my parents and my house was heavily damaged as well. We give 100 percent credit to the Lord for keeping us safe. There were a lot of people that were not as fortunate as we were.” Brown said.
Moore Funeral Home was also destroyed that day.
“A friend called us and told us that the building was not there,” Larry Moore, owner of the funeral home, remembered.
“All of our family went in the basement. We had the scanner on and one of the things that we heard over the scanner was that everything from Moore’s down was gone. Everything on Highway 11 south was destroyed,” Mary Moore, Larry’s wife said.
Mary continued, “It was an unreal feeling to see what the damage was. Everything was damaged at the funeral home. One of the buses from Trenton First Baptist landed in our parking lot.”
“Every building [in the area] had the same totaled damage. Everything was damaged, it was severe,” Larry said.
According to Larry, it took nine months to rebuild, but a lot of the community offered help.
Reece Fauscett, pastor of the Trenton United Methodist Church at the time, remembers the massive community response in the aftermath.
“We opened our church just as soon as we were aware that the tornado had gone through the south end of town. We opened our church to shelter people, and we started cooking for people who had been displaced, but also for people who had come in to help,” Fauscett said.
Fauscett noted that in about two weeks, over 14,000 meals had been served.
The church opened their gym up to become a supply center for the recovery effort. The back parking lot became a truck lot where supplies were unloaded.
“It was a joint effort. It was a lot of folks. It wasn’t just our church. It was the Trenton First Baptist Church and the Church of God and the American Legion. It was a remarkable thing to be a part of,” Fauscett said.
Fauscett continued, “What I remember most is that early response. Collecting things, feeding people. I remember the Dade County High School Band, they would come and pick up meals in their band bus, and they would take the meals up the mountain. It was a real community process.”
Fauscett also remembers organizing and forming DOAD, Dade Organization Acting in Disaster. DOAD had board members and became a 501(c)(3) organization.
“It could receive money from different agencies and then disburse money to rebuild houses and that kind of thing. We had people from all over who came in and lived in our church for the next year, and they would go out to rebuild homes that DOAD had identified. I lost count of how many houses they rebuilt and how many properties they repaired. What is remarkable about all of this, is that it was put together by people that had no experience doing this before,” Fauscett said.
Another thing that the church did was collect documents and photographs that were found lying in the streets, part of all the debris. All of the items were laid out on the alter.
“There was one person, who I realized later, his house has gotten completely blown away. He had come into the church to pray, and he looked and on the alter was a picture of his children when they were little. He said, ‘I don’t have a thing in the world. Everything is gone. But I have this,’” Fauscett said.
Regarding the food for meals and supplies, Fauscett said that he never knew where it all came from.
“We do know that in the end it didn’t cost us anything, but we can’t account where the supplies came from. The surrounding area was so generous and the churches just served as a conduit through which these supplies and funds would flow. We just simply just chalked it up to the grace of God,” Fauscett said.
Trenton Mayor Alex Case, and Director of Dade County Emergency Services, says that he thinks about that day all the time and still can see remnants of past damage and businesses, but the city and county have come a long ways in terms of preparedness.
“I parked on the square that morning. The wind got really bad, so I waited in my truck for a few minutes. Some of the roof of the apartments [on Case Ave.] hit over my truck,” Case said.
He drove to the administration building, and he could see the damage to the roof of the elementary school.
“So we just got to work. School was released and all the kids were safe. Then we were watching the news and we saw the other stuff coming,” Case said. “It was a bad day for us, but the community pulled strong. Everyone was helping, between all the community churches and the American Legion. They were awesome. They were all feeding people every day.”
“It was a long day,” Case continued. “You see what’s built back, but you still see remnants. I am just glad that we are in a better spot now than we were 10 years ago, and we’ve made improvements. All of the improvements have been done off of disasters though.”
Since then, there are three more outdoor warning sirens. Those are located at the administration building, the Dade County Sports Complex, and Davis School Road. $1.3 million worth of emergency generators have also been secured, for use by the sewer department. The HUB, a volunteer effort, has also been established. Three storm shelters are also in process, which will hold 265 people each. The first building will arrive sometime in May.
“We are going to expand that hopefully,” Case said about the shelters. “We have been asked why is there not a shelter in North Dade or New Salem? It’s because we don’t own property there.”
They also received a grant, which enabled the purchase of four small towable generators.
“We can strategically move them. We can put the power in the churches so people can be fed,” Case said.
In the future, Case would like to get cots for the shelters, and even a portable shower that hooks up to a water line and is run by propane. He also hopes to find funding and a grant to be able to relocate the 911 center into a safer building.
Case said that during a storm, it’s their job to report quickly to Georgia Emergency Management Agency with how much damage there is, how many roads are closed and how much estimated debris there is. The county has trained since 2011 to have all of the different county departments help together on that.
Case also encourages citizens to download the Reach Dade with Hyper-Reach on their phones. Hyper-Reach is an emergency notification system.
“We get our biggest uploads during storm systems, and you can do that for free. It costs us about $5,000 a year, but it’s worth it. You can’t put a price on somebody’s life,” Case said.
Case continued, “With the millions of dollars of destroyed property, roads and power, I think it stuck in our minds. These last few weeks when we had these other warnings, it’s in other people’s minds as well. You don’t want to just blow these things off. It did happen and it can happen again.”