It’s been five years since the weather event dubbed the “Super Outbreak of 2011.” On April 27, 15 violent tornadoes struck Georgia, killing 15 people in one day and doing millions in damage. Two Lamar County families look back on that night, and how far they’ve come down the road to recovery.
Danny Gunter of Barnesville recalls closely watching the incoming weather reports with this then 19-year-old grandson, Gabriel. “My wife was in the hospital scheduled for cancer treatment the next morning, which ended up being much safer for her in the long run.” Before the sun rose on the morning of April 28, their home, along with the homes of family, friends and neighbors were gone.
“I watched the tornado on TV, coming through Alabama, and it was expected to touch down in Griffin. Then a section broke off and headed toward Aldora. Finally reports said for Barnesville to take cover. Gabriel and I crouched down in the hallway. With my head down, I reached up to close the bathroom door when I felt myself sliding.”
At that moment, the 200-plus MPH winds tore the house apart. Gunter struck his head on the bathtub and awoke two hours later more than 400 feet from the house. Gabriel had found him and was calling out for help.
While Gunter was unconscious, the F4 tornado demolished three other homes on the Grove Street property where his family lived since 1996. His brother Paul and wife, Ellen, were pulled from their home, and tragically killed during the tornado’s violent destruction. Their 8-year-old daughter, Chloe, survived.
“Emergency management came and got me out of there- I had suffered a concussion, and my leg was banged up badly. I ended up having surgery on my foot for major tendon damage, so I was in the hospital for a while with that. I have scars and cuts up my leg, and I have hip pain that is probably from landing the way I did when the storm put me down.”
Now 13, Chloe resides with family, who also lost their home and suffered injuries during that night. The Gunters have purchased a new home. “This is a great community. Barnesville and Lamar County have been very good to us. After the tornado, everybody helped. It’s hard to remember everything because of the concussion. The locals and the state did everything they could to help us recover. They took care of us until we could get back on our feet.”
The Gunters were unable to recover most of their possessions, including prized items he’d collected throughout his extensive military career. “My wife, Lynn, went out to the property and collected all the papers she could find – certificates and such, and had them reframed for me. They’re dirty and taped together, but at least we have them. My passport was found 40 miles away by a man in Monticello.”
Across the street from the Gunter compound, is another multi-family homestead. Ron Smith and his wife Betty live in an updated version of their previous residence. Their daughter, Nealy Strom and her husband Dennis have also rebuilt, and live just behind her parents, up on a hill. Their children, McKenna and Charlie, were 10 and 5 on that night.
“Dennis and I heard it at the same time and we got the kids huddled in the hallway. McKenna was crying, and Charlie was quiet and still. We were praying and holding our kids and each other. Then the roof was gone, and it was all water and wind and lightening. And yes, it does sound like a train, just like they say. When it was over, the only part of the house that was left was right above us.”
For the Smith family, the road to recovery also took close to a year. With total damage to both homes, they rented a house and lived together during the cleanup and rebuilding process. “That was a special time,” Nealy recalls. “We’d been through this awful ordeal, and we were able to spend time together as a family, and we actually made it fun. Those are some wonderful memories.”
Nealy and Dennis’ son, Charlie, now 10, took what he’d learned from surviving the tornado and used it as a lesson to help others. To cope with what he’d been through, Charlie took an interest in weather and what to do in the event of a major threat. “I got to visit the Channel 2 Weather Center and learn more about tornadoes. I made a video about what happened to our house, getting a new house, and what to have in your Ready kit so you’re always prepared,” Charlie says.
When it comes to readiness, the Gunter and Smith families learned their lessons firsthand. “Have a place to go,” Gunter says. “Don’t wait.” “Tornadoes can change course quickly.”
The Lamar County tornado was one of 15 that touched down across the state throughout the night. Ed Westbrook of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA/HS) was Field Coordinator for Lamar and six other counties.
“When the sun came up and you could see the devastation…it was unreal. The footprint of the storm’s path was a massive three quarters of a mile wide on the ground. It traveled completely through Spalding County–17 or 18 miles. The changes in the landscape of these counties, these scars are still there, and they will be for many more years.”
Westbrook spent the next several weeks traveling in his assigned area, surveying damage and helping to assign recovery staff and volunteers. “People who do this work are in it because of a passion for helping people. It’s hands-on. I stayed in hotels most nights. I had my heart broken repeatedly.” He recalls meeting a family of six who’d lived in a mobile home. It had been destroyed but wasn’t insured for storm damage. “We’re always prepared to respond, to assess a disaster, to organize volunteers – that’s the job – but you can never really be ready for the suffering.”
Westbrook, who’s been with GEMA for more than 15 years, says that developing a family emergency plan is extremely important. “People have to look at their current living situation and plan around that,” he says. “If you don’t have a safe place to go in your home, then be ready to go to a family or friend’s house before it’s too late to get out. Too often, people assume it’s never going to happen to them. You have to truly sit down and plan for the worst. We don’t just say that just to have a message. It needs to be a call to action for families.”
Danny Gunter agrees. “My house was pulled out of the foundation like it was nothing. Have a place to go, and don’t wait.”
“The main thing we learned is that things aren’t important,” Ron Smith noted. “We built a special closet for our family in case it ever happens again. Lots of weather radios. Helmets. Anything you can do to prepare.”
Betty Smith adds, “We respect the weather now, that’s for sure. And we always tell people to be prepared. It’s the best thing you can do for your family.”
Click here to see aerial video of the Lamar County tornado damage.