UPDATED FOR PRINT May 4, 2011 — There’s not much left of the small community of Rio, whose two dozen homes straddle West McIntosh Road about four miles east of the south Fayette County town of Brooks and just over the county line into neighboring Spalding County.
It became a disaster zone in the dark Wednesday night of April 27-28, a 24-hour period marked by the worst outbreak of tornadoes in American history.
Major Jack Butler and volunteers from the Griffin office of the Salvation Army arrived in Rio Thursday. Butler noted the devastation that occurred in Rio and around Spalding County from a line of tornadic storms that claimed two lives in another area of the county.
“This (Rio area) is the worst hit of all. This is like a war zone. I told my wife it looks like somebody dropped a couple of bombs on this site. It’s devastating. The homes. The trees. If you look at these large trees, even a bulldozer couldn’t push some of these trees down. All these trees down and all these buildings destroyed, and no deaths. It’s amazing. Let me say, I’m a Christian, and God is good,” Butler said.
Rio is located about a mile east of Brooks, along West McIntosh Road just inside Spalding County. The small community of homes is situated along West McIntosh Road, Bendview Road, South Bendview Road and Oak Drive. And while only a sprinkling of about two dozen homes populates the community, its ranks were swelled by hundreds more who made their way to the area on Sunday, with some churches canceling services so that members could serve the stricken community.
A portion of the devastation was visited on Rene Biera, his wife Yenny and their daughters who rent a house on South Bendview, immediately to the south of West McIntosh. Before the tornado hit the house sat about 20 feet from the road. Now, the cement front porch is still there, but what little that is left of the house is some 50 feet behind the porch, with portions of the home and its belongings laying in shambles, scattered as debris.
When the tornado hit the couple and their two daughters were in a bedroom on the home’s south side, the closest point that lay in the tornado’s path.
“I heard the strong noise and looked out the window. I could see the tornado coming,” Rene said, noting the intensity of the storm with its driving rain and flashes of lightning.
The family had only seconds to run into a bedroom closet in the middle of the house, with Rene explaining that, “If we had stayed in this room we would have died.” It is likely he was correct since that room no longer exists.
They yelled in vain for Rene’s cousin who was sleeping on the sofa in the living room as they ran into the bedroom and into the closet. Their cries went unheeded as the tornado bore down on top of them. It did not take long for the tornado to pass overhead, perhaps only seconds. But those seconds brought an intensity the couple found difficult to put into words.
“You couldn’t get your breath, you couldn’t breathe and you couldn’t see anything. Everything was gray. When it was passing I called to my daughter asking if she was okay, but she couldn’t speak,” Rene said, his voice breaking, tears in his eyes.
Once the storm had passed the couple went to look for Rene’s cousin, but he was nowhere to be found. The living room that had been in the front of the house had ceased to exist. So they went into the yard, searching the debris for the missing man.
“We called for him but he didn’t respond. I told my wife, ‘I think he’s gone.’ But a neighbor came and found him under the sofa and pulled him out,” Rene said.
Standing in the middle of the debris that was once her home, Yenny’s words lent a different type of significance to the efforts of so many strangers pouring into the area to help.
“My husband is from Cuba. In Cuba, if something happened like this, it would stay like this. No food, no water, no help,” Yenny said as the couple stood in the middle of a field of debris, pointing to what was the house with portions of only a few rooms remaining.
“It happens so fast. We were all wet, in our pajamas with no shoes. We called 911 but it took a few hours for them to get here because the roads were blocked, but all the neighbors got together to bring people water and to help. But you don’t think about clothes. You think about the life you have.”
The home of Rene and Yenny’s next door neighbor, Paul Porter, used to sit on the corner of West McIntosh and South Bendview. Today, the two-story home is essentially a large pile of debris. On Sunday morning Porter, his son and a friend carefully searched through the debris. Like so many others in the community, their efforts were meticulous and heavy-hearted.
Porter said he was asleep when his son began yelling that a tornado was approaching. Seconds later, as the lightning flashed, he saw the wall cave in.
“I felt like half the house was falling on me and I tried to get to the hallway,” Porter explained, standing in the debris field that in no way resembled what used to be his home. “If he hadn’t yelled both of us would have been dead.”
By Sunday morning the small community of homes had swelled to a population in the hundreds as nearby residents, church members from area counties and residents of subdivisions such as Morningside in Senoia poured into the community. They came from Spalding, Coweta, Fayette, Pike, Henry, Lamar, Clayton, Newton, Cobb and DeKalb counties.
Parking along the road and in fields, the volunteers brought water, Gatorade, food of all kinds, trash bags and containers for debris, chain saws, wheelbarrows, backhoes, portable lights, toilet items, shade structures and plenty of muscle.
It was not without notice that many, perhaps most, of the volunteers were from area churches. One of the volunteers was Senoia resident Steve Brown from Senoia’s Vineyard Church.
“We came out here today because we believe it’s more important to be a church than to sit in a church. We felt compelled by the Lord to come out to minister to these people and help these people who were so much less fortunate than us this week,” Brown said. “Our pastor sent an email out Friday afternoon and we had maybe 60 or 70 people from the church mobilize to come out here this morning. We were joined by Brown’s Mill Chapel and Wellspring Church and possibly some others.”
“The house we’re standing in front of, they were at home when the storm came through,” Brown continued. “They left the home and went and hid in a ditch that was a low spot. It’s a mobile home that had some additions put on it. Now it’s sticks. There are about three rooms left standing with some semblance of a ceiling. But only a couple of scratches from flying debris on the leg of one of the girls.”
Also in Rio Sunday morning were Cheryl, David and Russ Krichbaum who came from Heritage Christian Church in Fayette County.
“We’re here to serve the Lord. The Bible is pretty clear about that, that it’s not just by faith but by works that you show your true belief. It gives glory to God. You can sit home and read about this and pray for them, but somebody’s got to get out here and do the work,” the family said, noting Christ’s admonition that we do unto others as we’d have them to unto us. “If we were in this situation we’d be very grateful for people to come out and help.”
The tornado also caused major damage to other areas in Spalding County. One of those was south of Rio. along Ga. Highway 16.
Commenting on yet another close call from the tornado and what he assessed as divine intervention, Dan Camp from Crosspoint Church noted a tornado miracle in an online newsletter. Camp described the event that led to quick action by Pete and Lauren Mitchell at their home off Hwy. 16 southeast of Brooks and a couple of miles south of Rio.
“All of this to say that a miracle of prayer, actual spiritual communication with and from the Lord, took place in our own church family that resulted in the lives of our Mitchell family being saved from the storm this week,” Camp said.
”As we understand the details, Lauren and Pete Mitchell had tucked their precious kids into bed and were all sound asleep when, a few miles north of them, Fawn Snowden had tucked her family in but, unable to sleep, began watching weather radar and praying. Shortly the Lord spoke to her spirit that she needed to call Lauren about the approaching tornado. Without hesitating, she called, awoke the Mitchell’s, and they jumped into their pantry. Minutes later, not hours, but minutes later, the storm hit hard and, minutes later, Pete opened the pantry door. As the humid night air sent chills down his spine, he realized that most of their house was gone. But they were safe, along with Pete’s dad, who the Lord had miraculously covered in his collapsed guest room.”
The restoration of the Rio community, the other affected areas of Spalding County and still other areas around Georgia and the Southeast is yet to come. Maj. Butler on May 3 said representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are on the ground in Rio and other areas and are beginning to take applications for emergency relief.
The Griffin office of the Salvation Army can be contacted at 770-412-6566 regarding some aspects and direction for local support that churches and individuals might want to provide.
Affected survivors and business owners in the designated counties can apply for assistance by calling FEMA’s toll-free registration number at 800-621-FEMA (3362). The hearing or speech impaired can use the TTY line at 800-462-7585. The registration lines are available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time. An application may also be completed online by going to www.DisasterAssistance.gov
Survivors can also apply for federal assistance directly through their Web-enabled mobile devices or smart phones. Visit m.fema.gov and follow the link to www.DisasterAssistance.gov to apply for federal assistance.
The clean-up in Rio has begun. The community will one day get back to normal. But the memories will likely long remain. Bittersweet they may be, of the winds that ripped away their homes and belongings and of the humanity, their own and that of strangers, that responded without being asked in a time of need.
Perhaps Rene Biera said it best. “What’s special are the neighbors around here. And the people coming here to help. I’ve never seen so many people coming, friendly, bringing water and food,” he said with tears in his eyes.