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Storm survivors work to put their hands on their past

Georgia towns recover from devastating storms

    NEWTON, Ga. — Karen Bailey waded through chest-deep tangles of toppled pines Saturday looking for the sparkle of jewelry and other valuables lost after a tornado shredded her mother’s mobile home and scattered the debris more than 150 yards from its foundation.
    She carried a small basket, her stepfather’s military discharge papers from the Marines, and a pair of mismatched shoes — a sneaker and a sandal.    ‘‘One shoe, it’s not really a big treasure, but it’s all we’re finding,’’ said Bailey, 30. ‘‘It looks like someone packed it all in a salad shooter and just sprayed it.’’
    Residents of rural Baker County, a rural community of about 3,900 south of Albany, were out Saturday salvaging what they could from more than two dozen homes here damaged after storms moving through southwest Georgia spawned deadly tornadoes late Thursday.
    Of nine people confirmed dead in Georgia, six lived here in mobile homes that were obliterated as a twister mowed through houses, cars and pine trees in a seven-mile path.
    Donna and Billy Etchells — Bailey’s mother and stepfather — were among the lucky ones who fled their homes ahead of the storm, taking shelter at their church five miles away. The twister ripped their doublewide mobile home in two and tossed them like bits of a broken dollhouse.
    They found their shattered china cabinet behind St. Matthews Missionary Baptist Church, a total loss after the roof collapsed to the red-carpeted sanctuary floor. The one brick home between their house and the church was demolished.
    The rest of the Etchells’ belongings got strewn across the two-lane highway into a graveyard of pine trees mowed down as if they were blades of grass.
    Donna Etchells, 55, was still searching for her engagement ring amid the graveyard of pines. Using a metal detector seemed fruitless with so many bent nails and metal scraps around. The day before, she’d found the crumpled top to the cardboard pillbox in which she kept the ring.
    ‘‘If I can find the bottom of it, maybe I can find my ring,’’ she said.
    Her husband, a truck driver, managed to salvage the CB radio and insurance papers from his 18-wheel tractor-trailer that ended up in almost as many pieces. The semi’s cab, mashed almost into a ball, looked like it had been hit by an Army tank.
    Andy Belinc, who pulls triple duty as Baker County’s emergency manager, fire chief and coroner, said Saturday at least 15 homes were destroyed by the storm. At least 27 others had light to moderate damage.
    Bernetta Graham and her husband, Ronald, had broken windows, a damaged roof and concrete blocks that shifted beneath their doublewide trailer. But she knew how lucky they had been. Right behind their home along a dirt road was where all six Baker County victims died.
    ‘‘When you see the devastation and loss of life, it makes you grateful God has brought you through this,’’ Graham said. ‘‘You could go sit down and wallow in it, but if you look at that over there, you realize how blessed you are.’’
    The six people killed were: Kierra Crumbly, 13; Kursty Thomas, 9; Willie Sue Brinkley, 43 and her sister, Joanne Brinkley, 40; Darren Owens, 40; Phyllis Owens, whose age wasn’t available, Belinc said.
    All that remained of Marvin Hurst’s brick home was broken chunks of concrete from the foundation. He’d found some clothes that could still be washed and worn, but that was about it.
    Unlike his neighbors, the Etchells, Hurst was home in bed when the tornado struck at about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He could hardly put it into words — a chunk of Billy Etchells’ semi crashed through the wall onto the foot of the bed, the walls exploded outward and the roof was ripped from over his head.
    Yet somehow, Hurst, his wife Mary J. and son Antwoine escaped with just a few scratches and bruises. About 30 of the 53-year-old hunting guide’s co-workers from nearby Riverview Plantation helped pile trees into debris into a bonfire the size of a railcar.
    ‘‘I’m not worried about the house,’’ Hurst said. ‘‘We’ve got our health, we’re alive and the rest of it doesn’t matter.’’

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