As I write this in early September, the National Weather Service has just confirmed that the swath of damage through Cherokee County on Labor Day was caused by a tornado. While it wasn’t a particularly powerful twister, as these things go, it stayed on the ground for a long time, cutting a twenty-four-mile path through the county, damaging 400 homes. Maybe you heard the tornado sirens. When my wife and I did, we turned on the television, where the local weathermen were all giddy at the notion.
Of course, the rains that came with the tornado didn’t do enough to lift us out of the drought that, once again, is bedeviling Georgia. The southern counties were parched by June. Agriculture, Georgia’s biggest business, is hurting. Consider pecan trees, which produce a crop every other year. This was supposed to be an “on” year for most of Georgia’s pecan trees, but the forecast, as of the summer, was grim: 80 million pounds, or what the state usually produces in an “off” year. Farther north, U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges are showing record daily low-flows in rivers—the Chattahoochee, the Oconee, the Chattooga. The list goes on. So far this year, 450,000 acres in the state have been struck by wildfire.
Oh yeah, the heat. This summer was the hottest on record in Georgia. We got off easy in Atlanta, where it was merely the third-hottest in the past 133 years. (Can you imagine a hotter one? There have been two—in 1980 and 1993.) The average—average—high was 92.5 degrees. At just over six inches, Atlanta’s rainfall was half what it usually is. It almost makes you forget that in January, the city was essentially shut down for a week because of an inch of ice that wouldn’t melt.
Anyone who denies the realities of climate change needs his head examined. If it seems like the weather has gotten crazier, it’s because it has. While you can debate the causes, the effects are indisputable, as Justin Heckert’s story shows us. The series of twisters this past April that tore apart Alabama and parts of Georgia hit a little town you probably never heard of called Vaughn. The other tornadoes that touched down in more populated areas got all the attention. But Vaughn . . . well, Vaughn is gone. Justin’s story is about one harrowing night, but more importantly, it’s about the days that followed, and what it means to come from a place that no longer exists.