Richard Cooper didn’t need a reminder that he was human like the rest of us.
But on January 30, the Gordon County EMA director got one anyway.
As he monitored an approaching EF3 tornado that moments earlier had mangled parts of Adairsville, he realized it could potentially hit several schools in the Sonoraville area.
His daughter was in school at Sonoraville High. His wife was at work at Sonoraville Elementary.
As it approached, Cooper got a play-by-play from Deputy EMA Director Chad Castoe and Sonoraville High principal Bruce Potts.
“(Potts) said, ‘Richard, it’s heading right over the middle school,” Cooper said.
“My (family) is there and I don’t have contact with any of them,” Cooper added. “Here I am, I have to do my job and worry about them too. My daughter was texting me and the last text I got from her said, ‘Daddy, I’m scared.”’
The tornado arrived a short time later and leveled homes, damaged utilities, flung trees and left many people displaced.
Thankfully, no one was killed in Gordon County.
Nearly a month later, Cooper and his staff are still working to help those impacted.
Residents continue to help their neighbors and others try to rebuild —with remarkably little state or federal assistance.
According to Cooper, the federal government does not provide assistance to communities that do not suffer at least $13.2 million in uninsured damages.
Both Gordon and Bartow Counties fell short of that mark.
Certainly, total damages eclipsed the $13.2 million mark, but many home and business owners had insurance, Cooper said.
“We were told this was a small event and it didn’t draw the attention most big events get,” Cooper said. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me? I don’t care if it is one person, it’s a big event to us. It’s big to the citizens of this county. And you’re telling me this is not a big event?”
With the lack of funding from the government, residents, business owners, volunteers and groups like the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), the Red Cross and United Way have helped pick up the slack, Cooper said.
Once such group is the Adventist Community Services Disaster Response team.
The group — made up of members from nearby communities — was charged with operating the Gordon County Distribution Center, which was set up at the old Big Lots store on Ga. 53.
The organization has disbursed clothing, food and other items to more than 400 people in Gordon County, according to information provided by the group.
“A lot of donations come in and it’s our job to sort them out,” said Terry Haight, coordinator of the disaster response team.
Since the tornado struck, the organization has distributed more than 2,700 food items and upward of 1,200 personal care items to go along with other goods like bedding, towels, clothing and cleaning tools.
“The county went ahead and asked us to handle distribution out of here so we would have everything in one place,” Haight said. “So people wouldn’t have to run all over the county for donations.”
Others like Cindy Downing, Co-Founder and CEO of Downing Clark Hope Center and Academy in Gordon County, put their resources to good use.
After the tornado struck, Downing felt called to use available space in her facility to house those displaced or out of town volunteers.
“My sister (cofounder and president Kelli B. Downing Clark) and I looked at each other and said we have to do something,” Downing said.
Downing said groups and volunteers have been coming and going since the tornado and as many as 20 people have stayed there at once.
“Every person has been extremely grateful,” she said.
Downing said she was struck by the generosity and selflessness of those who came to volunteer.
“Individuals will leave the comfort of their homes and families to come help others who they don’t know,” she said. “It’s awe inspiring. These people don’t know our community, but they come get dirty, freeze, get
rained on, to help people they have never seen before.”
It’s the giving spirit and cooperative attitude of the community that has made the biggest difference in restoration, according to Cooper.
“Now that we are in the rebuilding process, without the community and volunteers, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.