Approaching the one-year anniversary of the EF-4 tornado that struck parts of Newnan, Sen. Raphael Warnock toured the city of Newnan and visited the Chalk Level neighborhood east of the Court Square.
The Chalk Level neighborhood was one of the hardest-hit areas when the tornado hit Newnan last March 26, and evidence of the tornado’s impact still exists today in the form of tarps on roofs and damaged properties that still have yet to be repaired.
Warnock met with government leaders from both Newnan and Coweta County, as well as representatives from Coweta County Public Schools, the Coweta Community Foundation, Bridging the Gap and other organizations and families impacted by the storm. In the meeting, Warnock heard about how local organizations have stepped in to assist those impacted by the storm.
“There’s a great spirit in this community,” Warnock said. “You see neighbors standing up for neighbors in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but also as we try to find solutions.”
He also expressed some frustration over FEMA’s response to the storm. FEMA awarded the city of Newnan public assistance to cover their uninsured costs from the tornado, but those Public Assistance funds only cover uninsured expenses incurred by a local government.
The city also requested individual assistance, which would have enabled uninsured individuals to receive federal assistance to help rebuild their homes and get their lives back in order. But FEMA declared that the impact from the EF-4 tornado “was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of the Individual Assistance program.”
“Sen. Jon Ossoff and I pushed for it, but we’ll continue to push hard,” Warnock said at the meeting. “I wanted to hear from you. There’s still a lot of pain and a lot of folks struggling. I want to hear more on that and how I can help. Just know that, have no doubt that I will leverage whatever I can to get whatever I can for the folks of Newnan and Coweta County.”
The fact that FEMA denied Individual Assistance frustrated Warnock, who said those with damaged homes don’t care about government requirements – they just want to get back with their lives.
“My frustration is that the government doesn’t move quickly enough,” Warnock said. “If it’s your house, you don’t care why there hasn’t been a response. You don’t care about the bureaucratic nuances of government and whether this formula meets this issue or not. All you know is your house needs to be repaired. I’m going to do everything I can to push us to be creative and how we think about these things.”
Warnock said he was also thinking about how to help the community for the long-term.
“With every crisis, there is also an opportunity,” Warnock said. “A lot of these communities have been struggling for a long time. The people who are already on the edge almost get pushed over the cliff when a disaster happens. We’ve got to deal with the short-term crisis here, but I’m interested, long-term in how we make people whole, how we get people a path to the dignity of home ownership, and how we support our renters.”
Warnock said he is co-sponsoring legislation that will address long-term issues around housing and home ownership.
At the meeting, Warnock said he had visited the area a month after the tornado hit, and saw, first-hand, the impact of the tornado and the heroism and “great sense of community” that emerged in the aftermath.
The Coweta Community Foundation is one group that has stepped up in the aftermath of the storm. Rich DeWees, the long-term recovery director for the foundation, has been responsible for getting resources to families that need them in the aftermath of the tornado.
DeWees said that there are currently 167 cases in their pipeline, including 47 cases that are currently in construction management, 11 cases that are completely finished and four cases that are waiting on windows.
“We haven’t had to turn anyone away,” he said.
Kristin Webb, the executive director of the foundation, said the effort to clean up from the tornado is a collaborative one, and as they learned through FEMA, will likely take around three years to totally get completed.
But there has been assistance. Webb cited, most prominently, the Alan Jackson concert held last year at the Coweta County Fairgrounds, as an example of something that has helped raise money for the relief efforts in the community.
The Coweta Community Foundation works with Bridging the Gap, which according to Kelli Yeager, executive director with the organization, is the entry point for the case management related to the tornado.
Yeager said Bridging the Gap is working with over 280 households that were impacted by the March 26 tornado, and are working with people continuing to struggle out of the storm. Those 280 households include 450 people, including a large number of elderly individuals.
These people, Yeager said, are continuing to struggle with financial shortfalls and insurance, even nearly one year after the storm.
One individual that had issues with insurance as she tried to rebuild was Monique Reese, who lives in the Chalk Level neighborhood, not far from the Howard Warner Boys and Girls Club. Warnock and his staff visited her house, which is still being rebuilt as of this week.
Reese spoke at the meeting of the difficulties she has faced since the tornado hit, which included a predatory business taking advantage of her situation.
“I actually lost my mom six months prior to the storm due to COVID, and the storm hit on my husband’s death anniversary,” Reese said. “It was pretty hard for me, and the church had gotten money for me, a $10,000 grant, and I had a predator come and tore the house up. You’d think the tornado hit then and took the money. So, Weaverland is the one that is working on my house now, and they’ve made it a lot better than it was, but it’s still rough.”
Reese said she’s still living in a hotel as the house is being repaired by Weaverland Disaster Service, a Mennonite volunteer group from Pennsylvania that has worked to help rebuild homes in Newnan in the aftermath of the storm.
Reese said that with her birthday next week, she hopes she’ll be able to go back home by then.
Warnock said he wanted the people of Newnan and Chalk Level to know that they were not forgotten, and he would be back to help people dealing with the aftermath of the storm.