A year later, the effects of the Bryan County Georgia tornado linger

A year later, the effects of the Bryan County Georgia tornado linger

With rubble, trees and wood around her, Dr. Laura McKay began to wonder how she was going to escape. An E4 tornado has just spread Pembroke and headed towards Elbell. Inside what was once the Curtis V. Cooper Primary Care Facility, McKay was surrounded by piles of debris; a wobbly roof was proof that she had a short window of time to escape.

“I knew I was about to get a live,” McKay recalled as the storm approached. “I went under my desk and saw it hit the building and saw debris flying around and then everything went black.”

It’s been a year since a devastating tornado tore through Ellabell, killing one person and leaving many residents homeless. Residents of McKay and Bryan counties are still recovering of the storm that ravaged their small town.

The impact of the tornado was felt from afar, and in some places debris can still be found on the side of the road.

More: Bryan County is rebuilding Hendrix Park after tornado damage with plans to reopen next year

More: Bryan Co. tornado recovery: Owner of heavily damaged golf course at odds with insurer

More: ‘I loved her more than life itself’: Ellabell man recalls wife killed in Bryan County tornado

Persistent Challenges

City Administrator Chris Benson said the city has not received cash payments from the state or federal level. However, the city’s insurance policy paid for most of the repairs.

“The State of Georgia has made resources available to the city in times of need,” Benson said. “They provided materials and helped us a lot with the cleanup effort.”

McKay was about to walk out of the office when she was alerted to a tornado warning for Bryan County. Everyone was going home, so she took refuge in her office. Moments later, the building was destroyed.

“I just thought it was going to be a big thunderstorm,” McKay said.

But security cameras revealed something more sinister was about to happen. Despite the destruction, the phone lines were still active. McKay called 911 and waited patiently for EMS to arrive. It took a firefighter an hour to reach him. During those 60 minutes, she watched the roof slowly crumble.

“I don’t think it really struck me that it was a tornado,” McKay said. “I just didn’t know what was going on.”

Luckily for McKay, the roof collapsed within hours of his release. She found refuge with the firefighter who rescued her and waited there for her husband to pick her up. It would be the last day McKay would treat the patients she came to know and love. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t cry or think about them.

“A lot of people in this part of the county are very poor and a lot of them, especially around COVID, have lost their jobs,” McKay said. “So they lost their insurance and a lot of them don’t qualify for Medicaid, but they don’t earn enough to get insurance. We were the only medical care they had access to, so many of my patients are without care. I can think of a dozen of them that come to mind who I know are not getting the medicine they need. I ended up leaving Curtis Cooper in September mainly because it was too hard for me to stay there and not be able to go back to Pembroke because that’s where my heart was.

“I didn’t go anywhere” Two Bryan County families share their experiences a month after the tornado

The biggest challenge for residents is not having access to affordable primary care, as the Curtis V. Cooper facility was deemed a total loss.

“We have been working hard with our partners and the community to identify where services will be provided in the interim,” Benson said. “We are still working with our partners to provide or find a permanent solution. So that’s probably our biggest outlier right now.

The county hopes to have the courthouse repaired by December 2024 because it is experiencing a shortage of supplies. The county administration building will be completed in December.

More: Tornado rips through Pembroke and Ellabell in Georgia, leaving path of destruction

Hendrix Park has been torn to pieces but is on track to be this summer. The tennis and basketball courts have been repaired and residents can see a new grass court, fencing, lighting and over 125 trees have been planted.

Although Benson wasn’t in Pembroke when the tornado happened, recent storms in Arkansas and Mississippi paint a picture of what happened. He feels a sense of community during his short stay in Pembroke, but said residents are still recovering from what happened.

“Just being able to drive almost a year later and still see remnants of it is strange,” Benson said. “I’ve heard stories of the community coming together, but the impact of what happened is still fresh.”

Latrice Williams is a general assignment reporter covering Bryan and Effingham County. She can be reached at [email protected].

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