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The Town that Blew Away
Just past midnight on April 28, the tiny community of Vaughn was going to sleep. Forty-five seconds later, it was no longer there.
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.
|>> GALLERY: View images of the town’s wreckage and recovery after the tornado|
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.
Five seconds, ten seconds, a minute, forever—no one could quite remember just how long it lasted. Across the street from the Porters, in the corner of another bedroom, a screen door rattled open, nearly broke off its hinges. The breeze had been born anew into a god-awful howl.
John English, sixty-six—nicknamed “The Mayor” by his neighbors because he was always checking on them, and always outside in the yard, by the lemon tree, in his T-shirt and straw hat, mowing—stood by one of the wooden posts at the edge of his bed and traded shouts with his wife.
“We’re going to die!” she called out, unable to see him in the dark.
She was sure she could feel the house beginning to wobble on its foundation.
“Naw, we ain’t!” he shouted back, standing beside the screen door. He had never been in a tornado; neither of them had, and thus the conflicting views on whether they were in one now.
“It’s going to kill us!” she wailed.
John was staring through the screen at the hail, at the objects spinning above the yard, including his grandchildren’s play set, the shingles of his shed. Plant pots and trees were slamming into the roof of the porch. His ears popped. A set of chairs swirled past him as he tried to pull the door closed. He asked, “Brenda, where you at?” She replied, “I’m holding on to the bed post!” then reiterated, “It’s going to get us, it’s going to kill us!” Now John, too, could feel the house start to lift.
“God a’mighty!” he said. He could not look away. He was in awe. Staring at the tornado so close, he remembered, was like blinking his eyes ten times, as fast as he could, and every time he opened them, seeing the pop of light and flicker of dark—that’s what the middle of it looked like.
The house, which had belonged to Brenda’s mother, was more than a century old, so its wood gave a desperate groan as it broke apart. Brenda had spent her childhood playing marbles in the yard and hide-and-seek and washers across the road, spin the bottle at a party within the very same walls fifty years ago, as a girl. When they’d purchased the house from her brother in 1997 and moved back in, she had told her husband, “It’s wonderful to come home.” They’d remodeled the porch and fixed some of the rooms up.
In pieces, the ceiling landed around them, and the home’s two chimneys shattered, fleecing soot into the bedroom. Rain soaked the couple as they hung on to their bed.
“You okay?” he asked, when it seemed to be over.
“Yeah,” she said.
Jesus crashed to the floor of the Crowder home. His face shattered in the frame of Cathy’s picture. The tornado took the roof and sent it away, too. The tornado busted the windows, except for in the bathroom. Cathy and Howard, who had a beard like Santa Claus and dressed up as Santa for a special needs school, sat on the edge of their bed, and nothing touched them. Across West McIntosh, Mike Porter, in the doorway of his father’s bedroom, was briefly pulled off his feet and whipped around like a flag at the top of a pole. Paul was crushed by the wooden door and pinned between his mattress bedsprings, his socked feet sticking out, but wasn’t hurt. Mike himself survived because he was standing in the doorframe, which remained intact even though the wall surrounding it fell. At the top of the hill, Billy and Amanda Briscoe knelt in the hallway of their trailer, holding each other’s hands, at opposite ends of their three children. With their other hands, they squeezed the padded edges of the bed mattress they were kneeling under, and prayed. The giant oak tree was torn from the ground with a bang and dropped lengthwise across the entire roof of their trailer, which had been reinforced months before, bowing it down close to the tops of their heads; the tree, they decided, surely kept them from being swept away. They were able to climb out of their bedroom window and into the rain. Mary Willis hid beneath her bed, which was covered by fallen layers of the house; she was holding the children. She’d had just enough time to grab them both. She was screaming. Andrew Varela was in the county jail on a probation violation, and not in his mobile home, or he would’ve been a goner, because the tornado picked it up off the ground and demolished it; the pieces formed a trail. In a house on Bendview, in front of a pond, an out-of-work carpenter named Chrysostom Sullivan was impaled in the leg by a metal shard; some of his ribs were crushed under a wooden wall in the only corner of his home that wasn’t completely destroyed. He pulled himself up and sat on what remained of his couch, while the rain poured on his head, for nearly thirty minutes. When it stopped, he sat bleeding and vomiting onto the floor for another hour and a half, in shock. It took paramedics the entire night to crawl through the blasted forest, find him, and maneuver him out. He remembered they pulled him, on a backboard, through a giant hole in one of the trees. Susan Barreto’s daughter, Shalena, had gone outside in the storm to rescue a baby bird from a tree. She put it in their bathroom sink. They headed toward the teeny closet to hide, but didn’t make it. Shalena was sucked under the bed, which broke on top of her and helped hold her down. A cinder block wall fell and killed one of their dogs. Susan looked up and saw sky. Something hit her face and knocked out a tooth. She huddled on the floor, more cinder blocks spilling around her.
No one died.
It smelled like Pine-Sol. Of all the things that night to startle the senses, that’s what nearly everyone remembered. The trees smelled like that after they broke. The sky cleared. The breeze hushed up, and the stars popped out. John English found a flashlight and walked over what was left of his property. His johnboat was hanging up in a tree. Billy Briscoe helped pull Carlos Viera out from beneath the concrete slab of his family’s home, which had been turned and scattered all over the Porter property. John English checked on the Porters; Mike Porter went over to see about Ms. Willis. The houses were gone. The ground was full of glass and everything else that had been inside the houses. Insulation. Piping. Toilets. Bricks. Ceiling fans. Little things that were impossible to replace, like pictures. It was difficult to walk around anywhere, there were so many damn trees—the entire woods, laid waste—yet Paul Porter did, in his socks, dripping wet, like maneuvering through a minefield, to his ex-wife’s house. It was too dark to even see. Had his daughter, Amanda, not been over at her mother’s house earlier, she would have been crushed by the debris of her little red house, which had been next door to her father’s. Paul’s truck was gone, flattened when the Vieras’ house crushed it. Power lines were down like slaughtered snakes on the ground. It was the worst thing any of them had ever seen.
And it was also weird what the tornado did. For instance, it picked up John English’s lone picture of his father and placed it all the way across the road, without a scratch on the glass. It took the tomato plants but left the beans. It took most of the house but only blew over his grill and bent a side of the pool. It took away the play set but left the air-conditioner. It took some big, comfy chairs and two Bradford pear trees right out of the ground, but didn’t take the porch fixture or the butterfly plant in the bowl. Next door to the Englishes, in an old house everyone thought used to be a hotel, a man named Kenneth Youngblood lost his porch, some windows, part of the roof on the back, but that was all.
John and Brenda slept that night in the back of their van and periodically looked out the windows and up at the sky, then somehow found slumber. Mike Porter would lay out a sleeping bag beside the road. The Briscoes crawled back inside their bedroom, beneath the oak tree, and tried to go to sleep.
Behind what was left of the Vieras’ house, the coop was broken open and the pigeons taken away.
Fourteen other tornadoes hit Georgia on April 27 and 28. This was not the record—that would be twenty, during Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994. But it was one of the worst twenty-four-hour periods in the history of the state. Tornadoes hit Trenton, Cherokee Valley, south of LaGrange, and Covington; killed seven people in a neighborhood in Catoosa County, swept through Ringgold, and killed two more—a disabled man and his caregiver—in a double-wide trailer on the far end of Spalding County. Those tornadoes got all the attention. The Vaughn tornado didn’t even warrant an article in a major newspaper. No one talked about Vaughn. The only way for a person to really find out about it was to drive past. The tornado, classified an EF3 (the largest classification is an EF5, like the one that destroyed Joplin, Missouri, in May) by the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, had winds up to 150 miles per hour, touched down near Alvaton in Meriwether County at 11:59 p.m. on April 27. It came atop the hill and popped the pine branches in front of the Briscoe trailer at 12:17 a.m. It was three-quarters of a mile wide. It followed a northeast trajectory, going down the hill, until it fizzled out near the Towaliga River, between Luella and Hampton. On the ground it moved at a little more than 40 miles per hour, taking those chairs off the Englishes’ porch, scrapbooks from Amanda Briscoe’s house, pigeon feathers from the Vieras’ coop. It took forty-five seconds to move through Vaughn. In some of those other places there was more destruction, more devastation, more human suffering, sure. One of the reasons the police couldn’t establish patrols in Vaughn immediately is because they were spread thin as it was in all the small counties, had to be in those other areas, which were getting more publicity. But in no place in the state was the destruction more centralized, more grand on a visible scale, in terms of what it did and did not leave behind.
There was a church in Vaughn. It had stood for exactly 107 years. It was a microcosm of what the town once was, and what it had become. It was nothing much from the outside. It had fallen into disrepair. The interior looked about as smooth as the Cherokee arrowheads often found in the woods behind it. The pews used to be full, but the congregation had dwindled to thirteen or fourteen people, in a sanctuary that could hold up to 100. Several of its elderly members had recently died, in succession. It did not have a driveway. The walls needed paint. The floor needed to be redone. There were few spots to park in the grass surrounding it and on the edge of the road, not that it needed them. Hardly anyone in the neighborhood even went there. But the church, Vaughn United Methodist, and its pastor, a woman named Sandra Fendley, considered the squat building to be the hub of the community and did not want it to wither and die. There were oak trees behind it, on the hillside, with muscular branches that shadowed the church, which no one could even see from West McIntosh; but it lent Bendview a sense of protection, as if the church would always be there, as persistent as nature. So this past January, Fendley and other members went door-to-door in the surrounding area, spreading word about Vaughn United. They drove out beyond the abandoned Varnadoe’s store, past horse farms and the ponds, to houses a couple miles away in Rio and Griffin; threw a picnic for people who wanted to come. They had been able to procure $20,000 to revitalize the little old building. This included a new floor, more lighting, and a new paint job. New pews. Fendley and others were able to woo about fifteen more people, including a teenager, to come to service. Before the tornado hit the church, it was almost thriving. When the tornado hit the church, it tore out its entire rear wall, facing the woods; the roof was ripped off, flew away, and the stained-glass windows were smashed. Those protective trees were completely obliterated. Some angel figurines, light as paper, were left undisturbed on a piano in the fellowship hall. Those were about the only things the tornado didn’t touch.
“To have the storm take everything away was unbearable,” Fendley says.
But the members have decided the church has to be rebuilt. Modest plans were drawn up. Pastor Fendley wrote a letter to Spalding County, requesting permission to build on a lot across from the Porter property. Fendley decided that the old half-acre lot where the church stood was too small to rebuild there, too small if the church wanted to grow; there were also “hoops to jump through,” she says.
“People in our modern world want to go to a pretty church. Maybe that is something we old folks don’t understand, but it’s true. Soon Vaughn [United Methodist] will be a new, pretty church, and people will come to be with us.” Fendley wrote those lines in the same letter. With insurance from its sanctuary and Sunday school, and contents within the buildings, Vaughn United has $155,000 for the project, but is still $63,000 short.
After the tornado, Billy Briscoe propped a big wooden cross against the front door, even though the entire back of the church was open to the daylight, to ward away the looters.
And there were looters. In the rubble, in the aftermath, in the dark, during the next couple days, before FEMA came and GEMA came and support groups donated to the people of Vaughn trash bags full of clothing, there was no protection, even by the police. Everything was there, in its apocalyptic disarray, ripe for the taking. West McIntosh Road had yet to be blocked, so traffic going to Atlanta or Brooks or Peachtree City from Griffin, or vice versa, formed a two-lane, incessant line—gawkers. So the looters were able to see all this stuff in front of them, and tried to stake their claim to what they could find. “It’s a free country!” someone yelled at Bebe Goolsby, when she asked him what the hell he was doing. It was a stranger, waist deep in one of the decimated houses across the street. Bebe was John and Brenda’s daughter, and had been given the nickname “The Bitch”—because she never put up with any shit in Vaughn. She could be loud. She was brusque. She was tall, and stocky. Thirty-three years old. She loved her parents and was often there with her kids and husband, she had ridden bikes up and down the street as a teenager, it had always been a quiet place. Now this? She walked across the street to the would-be thief’s car, took a loose brick, and smashed the back windshield. “What are you doing?” he yelled.
“It’s a free country,” she said.
She stood outside the next few days, like an eagle. “I wanted to help protect the people that raised me,” she said.
She saw a man driving a rollback trailer come and park it in Kenneth’s yard. She accosted the driver, who said he knew Kenneth, that he was merely there to help; but she worried that he had really just come to steal all Kenneth’s old cars. She stayed up nearly seventy-two hours straight with Paul—The Sheriff—and Mike Porter, holding bricks, keeping watch; people were trying to steal scrap metal out of the lots. They tried to steal a Jeep. In a television report from the scene, Paul Porter was asked what the Vaughn residents were doing for protection, and he lifted up his shirt to reveal a holster carrying a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum with hollow-point bullets. He told the newscaster that he was not afraid to use the gun—hence his nickname. The citizens of Vaughn had imposed a martial law: shoot to kill, lest anyone remain alive to sue them after the fact.
Not long after Vaughn was destroyed, a United Methodist Church official drew a map and counted that in the end, the community comprised barely two dozen structures, including two barns. Thirteen of those were totally razed.
In the early twentieth century, Vaughn used to be an actual town, with a post office, a mailing address. A man named James William Vaughn had settled there with his family and started a plantation in the late 1800s. He donated some of his land, and the place adopted his name. A few years later, the Southern railroad was built straight through town, a pair of iron veins pumping commerce through its heart. People rode the train to go work in the textile mills. They came in from other cities, stayed in the Vaughn hotel. The train even brought the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, one memorable day, long ago. But then the railroad was pulled up. The cigar factory closed. The soap factory closed. Three old country stores were eventually boarded up and torn down. Weeds grew in the vacant lots, strangling some of those memories. In 1989 James William Vaughn’s home, made out of pinewood, was set on fire and burned through the night, to the ground. It had survived more than 100 years. Nearly everything was gone, except for the homes on Bendview and West McIntosh. The modern Vaughn was no longer a town, but it was still a home. Many who lived there had grown up there, had known it their entire lives. Could either barely recall the old days, or had heard tales about them. It was a place where people still said they lived, though now it was technically Griffin.
Vaughn still had a sense of place. Until the tornado took that, too.
The people of Vaughn did get help. And it was very quick in coming. The Red Cross showed up the next day and a nurse looked after a severed fingernail on Mike Porter’s right hand. The United Methodist Disaster Relief team arrived and used chain saws to cut up trees. People had to have a way to get in, so that was the first order of business. Pushing piles to the side of the road. Clearing paths. Church volunteers were there for thirty days, beneath large temporary tents, helping clean up the debris. There were fifty-five other church groups who volunteered, and around 1,200 people onsite, depending on the time of day. The residents had food, water, Porta-Potties, a place to take a shower. Prisoners in orange from Spalding County worked in the yards, on the roads, and Brenda English grilled hamburgers for them as a thank-you for their help. FEMA came, with its voluminous paperwork, offering those without insurance a chance at a loan. John English got a grant of $30,000, not nearly enough to help him rebuild. A woman named Brenda Wolf, who lives a couple of miles away, a churchgoer at Vaughn United Methodist, brought coolers, water, snacks, helped set up computers.
After the volunteers went away, an anonymous donor provided Susan and Shalena Barreto a temporary house for a few months, and then all of a sudden they were homeless again. They’d lived in a van before they lived in Vaughn, and spent three years saving money, fixing up that little house, trying to buy the land. It was nothing, just one room, made of cinder block. The tornado had changed them; they could not keep calm at any hint of a storm. Several times, no matter where they were—for instance, eating a pizza by the windows of a restaurant—they’d gotten in their car and driven as far away as they could, trying to outrun the weather. Once they stopped in North Carolina; another time, Maryland. They were hysterical. “The biggest thing it took was our peace of mind,” said Susan. “The Doppler, if we see it, and it’s red—we take the car and go.”
“I’ve been praying for the people [Susan and Shalena] who lived in that block house,” said Mr. Crowder. “They were so nice to me. I used to tell that girl she was my girlfriend, and she’d laugh. They used to bring us clothes, and shoes.”
John and Brenda English had lived in their house since 1997 and did not have insurance, because they had just put the house in their names. For years, John had been trying to get the name of the house transferred from her brother’s. Now they were living in a little blue house next to John’s shed, which they’d owned for a while and had just never rented out.
An anonymous donor asked one of the pastors to hand-deliver checks for undisclosed amounts to the people in town. Bebe and Mike took a collection bucket from the cars passing by and stopping on West McIntosh Road, and raised $1,400 that was split evenly.
The sheriff decided to rebuild. Paul Porter’s mother had lived in that house, and the memories of her, and his life there, overwhelmed him. He couldn’t let everything be lost; he couldn’t pack up and find someplace else. When asked what the house meant, he couldn’t even talk about it. He tried. A weathered man, who was prone to scold his contractor, to call himself a “true redneck,” who looked imposing behind the mirrored lenses of his shades—well, when he tried he froze up. Choked back a tear. Looked away. Paul was one of the four people in the community who had insurance. So he didn’t get any money from FEMA. When he’d purchased the total-loss coverage from State Farm, he had commented to his agent, “I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I’d need this.”
An hour after the tornado hit, he was on a cell phone, starting a claim. It would be two months before they finally broke ground. Poured a foundation a month later, for both his house and his new workshop, and also a little two-story home for Amanda. He and Mike had been living in “the dump,” which was the Holiday Inn Express down in Griffin. The tornado shook The Sheriff. He had specifically requested a double-reinforced steel safe room in the basement of the new house, big enough to fit his neighbors in Vaughn, should the need arise. High winds made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He wanted a damn tornado siren, right there on the edge of his property. It’s funny what it did to people. John English woke up during a car trip and screamed at his daughter, “The tornado!” Some of his relatives, including his brothers, were helping him rebuild Brenda’s mom’s old house. It was a slow process. He was out there every day, white T-shirt pulled over his chest, hat shielding his face. They bought two-by-tens from Home Depot with what they’d received from FEMA. Ms. Willis had chosen to rebuild, too. She was keeping her foster children.
Near the rubble, a yellow school bus pulled up. It was the afternoon of the first day of kindergarten. Amanda Porter’s daughter, Krista, ran from the bus stop, where her mother was waiting, and they held hands as they walked up the hill.
“My baby’s getting off the bus!” Amanda shouted. She had been sitting under a tent, smoking a cigarette, watching a truck back onto the foundation of her father’s new home. This was Vaughn, in the sunlight. It had never been much, and it was even less than it had ever been. The bus pulled away and Amanda took Krista inside to do homework.
The Briscoes could not rebuild. No, they were struggling, after the tornado. They had to move into temporary church housing a few miles away; they had loved living in Vaughn. They had been there for about two years. Their little girl, Gracie Bug, chased lizards and bugs through the woods and brought them into the trailer, where her mother would find them in the bed, on the floor, on the couch, in the rooms. Gracie played with Krista and they both climbed trees. Billy and the kids rode go-karts up in and around the woods, on the trails.
Amanda Briscoe came back and looked at what was left of their trailer one day this past summer. She stood in the grass, where her bedroom used to be; pointed at the lot and described where the pictures fell onto the mattress that was on top of them. The elderly woman who owned the lot was not going to do anything with it, had decided to keep the insurance money, was not going to put a new trailer there. Since Amanda and Billy did not own the trailer, they didn’t have a choice; they couldn’t afford to come back, and had no opportunity to.
“It used to be beautiful here,” she said, looking at the hole, across from the church, where the only thing standing now was that propane tank. “Now it’s just ugly.” They’d gotten $5,300 from FEMA. Enough to buy a new little car, to share, after their SUV was destroyed. They put the rest of the money in a safe.
In the days and weeks after the tornado, many people swore they saw a pair of doves in what was left of the trees. Some had never seen doves before, and so the birds had appeared as wonderfully and unexpectedly as something pulled from the hat of a magician. They were spotted in several places, came to be regarded as heavenly, descended to protect the decimated town. Amanda Briscoe said she saw them because they were nesting in that oak tree that fell and crushed their roof, the tree that saved her family; two white doves, just sitting there. Surely, they were a sign. A symbol. They flew inside the rubble of the church and sat on the doorstep outside, before it was condemned and torn down. The town had been through so much, and the people who were staying there, who had stood their ground, who had decided to rebuild, who had refused to leave—even the ones who were coming back to look at what they used to have, one last time—they all needed something like the doves, to lift their spirits. And that’s what the doves did. Everybody saw them. Amanda Porter saw them. So did Brenda Wolf and Sandra Fendley. Enough people who saw them believed they weren’t just a stroke of luck, just like they didn’t believe that the tornado was a terrible stroke of luck, either. The doves were there for a reason.
Paul Porter saw the doves. He saw them in the rubble. He saw them in the trees. He saw them on the days before he returned to his job at the Kmart distribution center. He watched them, as he smoked cigarettes, as he drank Gatorade and bottled water, as his skin got darker as he stood every afternoon in the sun. He saw, too, how everyone else around him reacted to the doves.
So The Sheriff didn’t tell the truth.
He didn’t have the heart to let anyone know they were just a couple of pigeons.