When Rosa Ward-Thomas went to bed late Sunday night, Feb. 13, she had no idea that in just a matter of hours tragedy would strike Mitchell County, a mostly rural area located 175 miles south of Atlanta.
"It was balmy and windy and I could hear some thunder in the distance," she told me, "but I slept good all night long."
Shortly after midnight on Valentine's Day, while the school nurse was asleep in Carmilla, Ga., under the cover of darkness a half dozen tornadoes swept along a 10-mile path for three hours through four southwest Georgia counties.
The strongest of the twisters—clocking 200 mph winds—leveled a 100-unit mobile home park, destroying all but three of the trailers. Eleven people in this poor, working class, mostly African-American neighborhood were killed. All told, 19 people died that night, ranging in age from 18 months to 85 years.
No tornadoes since World War II have caused this many fatalities in Georgia. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the total damage to the four counties includes 258 homes destroyed, 88 more severely damaged, 300 families made homeless and 200 people injured. Southwest Georgia is farming country and the storms also destroyed at least 20 irrigation systems and 14 chicken houses, flattened dozens of pecan groves and littered peanut fields with debris.
It wasn't until Rosa Ward-Thomas arrived at the Mitchell County Elementary School, where she works, that she first heard the news. Quickly she organized folks from her New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. With some of the school's staff they drove out to the trailer park site.
"The totalness of the damage is beyond description," she told me as we sat in the school clinic. "We had to climb over uprooted pecan trees and through underbrush to get to the trailer park. The police weren't allowing anyone into the area at first, but I told them, 'I've got to see about our people!'"
What Rosa and the others found was that nothing was recognizable anymore. "One lady with me not only couldn't find her house, she couldn't even find where her house used to be!" Rosa said. "We dug in the mud and helped pull out folks' little valuables," she continued, tears welling up in her eyes. "We pulled clothes off tree limbs and salvaged what little we could. We were all in shock, I know. We still are."
The full effect of the storm's devastation hit home when she returned to school the next day. "The children were so traumatized and are frightened still," she said. "These young boys and girls are dealing with loss of life and some of them have been made homeless or don't have food or clothes right now. In a community this size [Camilla's population is 7,000], we're all neighbors and it's our neighbors who have gotten hurt, people we go to church with, people we go to school with and work with."
"One little girl wet her pants three times in school that first day back," she continued. "A five year old told his classmates, 'Some of my people are dead.' Two of his aunts and a great-aunt were killed by the tornado. How do you explain all this to children?"
While we talked at the school, a steady stream of youngsters walked into the clinic. Some were there to get prescription medication but others had come just to get a hug and some motherly reassurance. Several children were crying, trying to cope with loss and confusion. More than one child melted into Rosa's arms, head snuggled into her chest.
After I left the school I drove south of downtown Camilla to "ground zero," past the massive clean-up underway at the trailer park. Many people were signing up to move into temporary trailers. Volunteers carried donations of food, clothing, building materials and toys into makeshift shelters. Not far away, mourners gathered for the first of many funerals for the storm's victims.
Rosa Ward-Thomas firmly believes that those suffering now will find a way to make it through these dark hours. "The Lord will see us a way," she told me, holding a first-grader in her lap. "But right now it's breaking my heart."
John Cole Vodicka is Director of the Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Ga., and works with community groups in Camilla.