A month after the Georgia tornado, some families are still struggling

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Georgia Department of Natural Resources Captain Chris Hodge talks to Mike Fox while surrounded by the remains of his home in the Park Place neighborhood of Ellabell, Georgia. Fox and his wife Michelle took shelter in their hallway when the tornado hit their home on April 5, 2022 (Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News via AP)

AP

Nolan Drigers reached for the front door, the kids in tow and his wife a step behind him.

The family of four attempted to leave their home in Ellabell and onto the highway after learning of a tornado making landfall in Pembroke. Drigers didn’t realize it was only seconds away from his neighborhood when he received the notification.

Moments later, his house was turned upside down.

“We were home and I had checked the weather,” said Drriggers. “Everything was pretty quiet at my house. Then they said a tornado hit Pembroke. When I opened the back door to leave, I saw the tornado hit the top of my neighbor’s house. When it came to ours, I tried to pull a mattress over us. Our house started flipping two or three times. The whole time my wife was praying. We didn’t think we would make it.”

When the storm was over, he called everyone’s name, but there was one person who didn’t respond. At that point, Drriggers said he started praying that his child wasn’t dead.

“I couldn’t find my 3-year-old anywhere,” said Drigers. “I tried to hold my two girls, but they slipped out of my hands. I found my 9 year old but I couldn’t find my 3 year old. Because of the tornado, there were a lot of stuffed animals and blankets around. Finally I saw her feet and pulled her up. At first she said nothing. I started shaking her and asking her if she was okay. Then she smiled and said, “I’m fine.” When I first saw her feet sticking out from under all that stuff, I started screaming.”

In the midst of the chaos, Drriggers didn’t realize he dislocated his shoulder. In addition, he sustained several cuts to his hip that led to a staph infection. “My leg got to a place where I couldn’t walk on it. I thought I could take care of it myself. Four or five days later I was in the hospital.”

The family was given an RV to use temporarily, but because it was only 24 feet wide, they knew it wouldn’t be a comfortable space to live in long-term. Drriggers admitted he was frustrated with FEMA and said he was under the impression they would provide assistance to those affected by the tornado.

“It’s my fault,” said Drigers. “We didn’t have home insurance. “We were waiting for FEMA to come in and then I found out that FEMA wasn’t coming.”

But nearly a month into the day of the tornado, Bryan County Sheriff Mark Crowe, Daniel Defense Marty and Cindy Daniel, God’s Pit Crew and former NASCAR driver Jeb Burton outfitted the family with a new mobile home, complete with all new furnishings.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Drigers. “I’m so grateful for everyone’s support.”

OTHER FAMILIES THAT ARE STILL DIFFICULT TO FIND ASSISTANCE

But one family has not been so lucky.

Yvonne Whitfield, whose house was destroyed in the Homestead subsection in Ellabell, is battling with her insurance company over a clause she says will be enforced in her new policy, which won’t take effect until June.

“What they are telling us is that they have a clause in my new policy that if the property is going to be repaired they will pay for living expenses for a reasonable amount of time so that we can live somewhere and they will pay for food and rent and that sort of thing,” Whitfield said.

“But if our house is a total loss, they only pay the first seven days after they put the check on the house. Now that they’re lowering the check on the home, I’m stuck with all my extra living expenses, plus my mortgage payment that I have to keep making.

Whitfield said her insurance company had cited only $42,000 in damages. Before the storm hit, Whitfield thought insurance would cover most or all of her costs. In total, she spent and counted $10,000. “We’ve been eating out for a month and paying people.”

Whitfield added that she thinks other communities were placed before hers when it came to the clean-up efforts. But she praised two groups who made a big step.

“I don’t think they did it on purpose, but I don’t think they realized how bad it was on our side,” Whitfield said. “But Pembroke Advanced Communications – they were amazing with their equipment and generosity and camaraderie. And Sam-Jay Landscaping was also very helpful. Without them we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we are today.”

For now, Whitfield is stuck paying her RV and the mortgage on her ruined house. She said it has been a painful process as she and her husband continue to spend money to ensure they stay on top of their spending.

“We’ll pay insurance so you’re protected,” Whitfield said. “But you’re not protected. They protect themselves. My neighbor, who has another insurance company, is getting a new roof on his house. Their truck is being repaired. I got nowhere. We already go through enough emotions and stress and try to save things. There are things that are gone and you cannot replace them.”

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