Vaughn, Georgia, was a good place to live. Before its houses were wrecked and its trailers spit into the treetops, before its ancient oaks were uprooted and snapped in two, before its residents crawled from the ruins to see that almost nothing remained. It was a place of families, and children. It was a place of vegetable gardens and swing sets, porch lights and birdfeeders.
Photograph by Kendrick Brinson
It was a place where old Mr. English took meticulous pride in his lawn. The neighbors knew each other: Paul Porter and his grown son and daughter, his ex-wife who lived across the street; Ms. Willis and her two foster kids; the Viera family, with old license plates nailed to the walls of their pigeon coop; the Barretos, a mother and daughter, with their dogs, in the one-room cinder block house with a teeny closet; the Briscoes in the trailer beneath a giant oak tree. There were more, but not many. They all saw each other most every day. They had parties in the aboveground pool and cooked hot dogs on the grill. Their kids played together at the top of the hill, in the woods, and down in the valley, by the street. Vaughn was so small that the people there couldn’t help but see each other, talk to each other, maybe occasionally shout a joke from the porch steps. It was a ten-acre square of earth in unincorporated Spalding County forty miles south of Downtown Atlanta, with a thin paved road called Bendview as a divide. No one there had a lot of money, but they all made do. To a driver passing by, Vaughn could’ve appeared as a hamlet, a bedroom community, or a place where some rednecks parked their cars on the grass, little houses tucked into the thick of the woods. Tired vehicles slouched in the yards, yes; but the trees above them, everything around them, was beautiful.
Well, not anymore. The earth was pulled up and spread over the grass, bright as blood. The trees left behind were pitiful and thin, skeleton bones. A few houses still stood, but with holes in their windows and blue tarps flapping on their roofs. There was a propane tank that smelled like a dead animal on the top of the hillside and a line of concrete steps leading to where a trailer had completely disappeared. There was the shell of the Briscoe children’s empty playhouse, a foam mattress impaled on the branch of a dead pine, stacks of cinder blocks, and uneven mounds of bricks.
In mid-August, more than three months after the community was blown away, a few of the remaining residents smoked cigarettes from beneath a tent donated by a local funeral home, drank Gatorade, and watched the people driving by on West McIntosh Road. Just about every other car slowed, someone inside pointing, occasionally taking a picture, then driving on. One of the residents, wearing aviator sunglasses, his skin dark from the sun, do-rag tied around his head beneath a ball cap—a man who had a nickname, “The Sheriff,” who always spoke the truth—raised his voice and yelled at them to speed up and drive the hell on by.
On April 28, a few minutes past midnight, it was raining in Vaughn. There was a strange heat in the valley below the top of the hill. Mary Willis was in bed and had the two babies tucked in. John and Brenda English had been on the computer, because the satellite dish was out. The Crowders—Howard and Cathy—sat on the end of their bed, watching the weather update, which must’ve been a few precious minutes behind. Billy Briscoe woke, adjusted to the darkness, walked outside. He could tell something was wrong. He went out onto the porch of his single-wide and stared into the woods. The pine branches had begun to pop and dance. There was something terrible coming. There was a noise in the distance, building. The sky shivered with lightning. He could feel it, though he could not hear the siren that had been wailing four miles away. He told his wife to get their kids, take them into the hallway. Paul Porter was dressed for bed, in pajama pants and socks, when he heard his son’s footsteps on the stairwell. He did not hear his phone ring, never heard his daughter’s voice message. Mike Porter had rushed to his father’s bedroom doorway, having watched the window fan fly completely across his own upstairs bedroom seconds before. His hands shook on the doorframe, and his head thrust through the door. Mike yelled, twice:
Then the house fell on top of them.