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GA town on mend after tornado

Some 60 cases remain in Americus, others continue to trickle in.

BY P.J. HELLER | AMERICUS, Ga. | June 22, 2007

Walk down most any street in Americus today and you'd be hard pressed to remember the shambles the Georgia town was in just three-and-a-half months ago after a powerful tornado ripped through the community.

"Unless you're looking for it [storm damage], you're not going to see it in most places," said Jody Wade, director of Sumter Disaster Recovery, an umbrella group of government-, community- and faith-based organizations helping to rebuild the Sumter County town.

The March 1 twister, one of a swarm of tornadoes that tore through the South that day, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, including the local hospital.

Since then, Sumter Disaster Recovery has worked on an estimated 468 homes, doing everything from removing debris to rebuilding. Another 60 cases are being worked on, with other cases continuing to trickle in.

"We've definitely done a lot," Wade said. "But we're still finding people who didn't come forward in the beginning that still have a lot of damage."

Exactly why people have not come forward sooner for assistance is a mystery to Wade. Door-to-door surveys of about 1,600 homes were conducted by Christian Reformed World Relief Committee Disaster Response Services. The effort generated about 40 requests for help.

Wade noted that one 94-year-old woman whose home was damaged had sought help from her local church. While the church was able to gather most of the materials to repair her roof, he said it could not afford the labor to do the job.

"They about got the materials together but the labor's going to be at least twice as much as the materials cost because it's a steep roof," Wade said. "I think they just thought that eventually somebody would come along to help them."

That "somebody" turned out to be Sumter Disaster Recovery, which is now working on the woman's case.

More than 2,000 volunteers, representing some 280 groups and organizations, have poured into the town since the tornado, Wade said. At least 95 percent of the groups who have responded are from the faith community, he added. They range across all denominations and come from both the national and local level.

"We've had groups from as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin and individuals who have joined up with other groups from all over the country," he said.

The majority of people coming to help have been from Georgia.

Even with that support, Wade said more volunteers are expected to be needed in July, August and possibly into September. Volunteers are being housed in several local homes and dormitory space is available outside of town and at Georgia Southwestern State University, if needed.

Also needed are contributions of building materials, especially lumber, which are now being purchased with donated funds, Wade said.

"We've made very good progress," he said. "We made a lot of progress quick. That was because of all the faith-based churches coming in with a lot of people to help. If it hadn't been for that, the streets would still be lined with debris.

"The streets are cleaned up," he said. "The town is cleaned up."

Wade said he expects most of the committee's work to be completed by the end of the summer.

"It depends on how many more big cases we find that we have to generate the income to buy materials and the volunteers to put those materials on the house," he said. "I really feel like we'll be 80 percent complete by then.

One of the projects involves bringing in volunteers and donating materials to help rebuild the Shady Grove Mission Baptist Church that was severely damaged. The rebuild is expected to cost $105,000 in materials alone; so far, $75,000 has been raised.

"It's an old country church out in the county and it just happened to be in the line of the tornado," Wade said.

As far as the rest of the work, "There's a big need still out there, but we're getting a lot of people to help," he said. "That's difficult right now because there's so many other disasters out there. But we are getting a steady supply of volunteers."

Among the volunteers expected to come to town are members of the Americus High School Class of 1977, who will be holding their 30-year reunion on July 20-21.

"As I was sitting in church at Martha Bowman Memorial United Methodist one Sunday morning in March, the pastor, Bob Moon, mentioned those who were affected by the recent tornado," said Leslie Westaway Samuleson. "He said that a team from our church was going down to work on some homes in Americus and that we should help those 'in our own back yard.' That struck a chord with me, having grown up in the small South Georgia town."

As a result, Samuelson planned a reunion that includes spending the second day working on a home damaged by the tornado.

"That evening we will reminisce about our younger days but also about helping someone who could not have gotten the work done otherwise," she said in a message to her classmates.

Samuelson was coordinating the work party with Wade, who coordinates the volunteers and oversees others managing housing and food. He and a construction manager are the only two paid employees.

Wade got involved in the recovery effort in the days immediately after the tornado, volunteering to do whatever was necessary.

He previously spent 25 years in the marketing and sales of manufactured housing to people in Florida - or the "snowbirds" who flocked to Florida every winter - whose residences had been damaged or destroyed by hurricanes.

"So I had a little bit of experience with disasters," Wade said. "But I was in the business of selling homes then to snowbirds, mainly. They were replacing homes that had been destroyed by the hurricanes, or they were fresh to Florida" and purchasing a home to put on their property.

"I really wanted to get away from that end of life and start over in a new direction," he said. "I asked the good Lord to point me in the right direction and he sent me here for about seven months unemployed, and then all of a sudden, here I am."

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Sumter Disaster Recovery, Inc.

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