On April 5,a powerful EF-4 tornado ripped through sections of North Bryan, killing one person and injuring a dozen more.
The National Weather Service later estimated the tornado at its max width was 1,300 yards wide and had peak winds of more than 165 mph as it moved in a northeast direction from Pembroke to Black Creek.
It left scars. Many businesses, organizations and homes were either damaged or completely destroyed. What follows is the story of one family, still displaced from their home.
Hollis Anderson Hill, her husband Sean and son Sean Kelly were enjoying some off-time during spring break. Hollis Hill is an elementary school teacher with the Bryan County School System and this particular afternoon started with Hill helping her son pick out a tuxedo for his upcoming prom.
As the two were having lunch at a diner, they watched a TV that was tuned to the Weather Channel.
“We thought wow, the weather is going to be bad,” Hill said. They went home and Hill said her son asked if he could go to his friend’s house.
“I asked him to wait until the bad weather passed,” she said. Her husband soon came home and the family was waiting for the bad weather to pass.
“My husband was looking through the front door and he said it looked fine and everything was going to be fine,” Hill said. “And I looked at the backdoor.”
The family home sits within the Black Creek Golf Course and their backyard faces the Hendrix Park and Recreation facilities.
In between is her backyard fence and lots of oak and pine trees.
“The ground was moving like a huge dustbowl,” she recalled. “I saw that in the distance. I’ve never been in a tornado and I’m thinking about what I’ve seen on TV, you know the funnel, thin at the bottom. But I didn’t see that, I saw the top and the bottom was so wide, it didn’t look like what I think of as a text book tornado. It looked like a giant dustbowl; it was dark and I told my husband it doesn’t look good out here.”
But Hill said her house has something most others in the area do not – a basement built by the previous homeowner who used to live in a tornado prone state.
Hill said she told her husband they needed to get to the basement so the family grabbed their pets and ran to the basement door located in their garage.
Her son grabbed one of the family’s dogs and as he made his way to the bottom step, a basement window blew in and glass showered his shoulder area.
Hill said what literally took seconds felt like minutes as the family huddled together and prayed.
Hill said she was able to see the force of the tornado as it picked up a neighbor’s trailer, one full of racing equipment and extremely heavy.
It lifted up in the air slightly, tipped over and the wind pushed it into her neighbor’s home. She said that is when she realized just how bad the storm was and that her family was really in the midst of a frightening situation.
“Most people say the sound is like a freight train,” Hill said. “But, to me, it sounded more like a low-flying Chinook helicopter from nearby Fort Stewart.”
After it was over and safe to come out of the basement, Hill went into the house to check out the backyard while her husband went to check the front.
She said she thanked God they were all OK and immediately went out to check on their neighbors.
“We went to the cul-de-sac,” she said. “And everybody started coming out.” Thankfully everyone seemed to be unharmed.
But the damage to her home and others was extensive.
Hill said her backyard fencing was unsalvageable and completely destroyed.
Trees were snapped in half and power lines were down everywhere. Her windows were broken, rainwater had penetrated interior walls and shingles ripped off the roof.
There were sections of stucco of the exterior of the home damaged and muddied. A section of a park bleacher was tossed into her yard and slammed into the family’s three cars, damaging all three vehicles. A section of their roof was torn away and during damage assessment the family learned that a section of their roof rafters had been twisted and damaged by the powerful swirling winds.
A structural engineer was called in to fully assess repairs needed to the roof and attic to make sure the house was sound. Damaged and wet drywall needed to be ripped away during mitigation.
And while they had a lot of damage, Hill said they feel blessed because other families in the same cul-de-sac have had to demolish what remained of their homes and start over.
Of the seven families that live in the same cul-de-sac, only two remain in their homes – the others remain displaced as construction and repairs continue, Hill said.
“We are living in a bus-converted-camper in our driveway,” Hill said while adding other neighbors are staying at various places around the city.
She said looking for short-term rentals for families who were displaced was impossible because there were no homes to rent nearby.
“Look, I am grateful for this camper, but it is not like the ones you see on TV or when go RVing,” she said. “It is a 1990 Eagle bus converted into a RV. It’s very slender, not very wide.”
She said the person who converted the bus did add nice touches to include a full bathroom but nothing beats the true comforts of home.
“I am not a small person and neither is my husband so us being in that thing it’s been rough,” she said laughing. “My son is very tall and it has bunks in the back but he is too tall to sleep in those. So, he had been sleeping on the couch.”
The family managed throughout the summer but once school started, she was concerned her son was not going to get the proper rest, so he has been staying at a friend’s house during the week days.
“He can handle it, he’s a football player and takes honors courses,” she said. “I just feel like he needs to get good rest.”
She said the family used the RV for a camping trip in July. Everything they needed was already in the vehicle they’ve been calling home. But on the way back she became quite emotional when she realized they were merely driving the RV back to their driveway.
“We are going home but we don’t have a home,” she said to her husband. “We are just driving this back and parking it. It is not the same.”
Her husband reminded her it would be, soon.
“It’s been a rough go,” Hill said adding other things since the tornado have added to the problems. Hill said dealing with the insurance adjusters and claims department is a constant back and forth and global supply and workforce issues have sometimes halted repairs or slowed things down dramatically.
She said they were fortunate to not have lost many sentimental things. Some things got water damaged.
“A bookshelf that my grandfather built, before I was even born, for my mom.”
Her attic and roof are finished now but there is still flooring painting and windows to install. Outside siding and stucco still need work. She has a new fence and drywall hung, but they are still waiting for the last of the house repairs to be done to move back in.
“But we are so blessed, so blessed compared to other people,” she said.
However, as the holidays draw near Hill is hoping and praying to be back inside her home by Thanksgiving and definitely by Christmas.
“There are so many days where we have little breakdowns happen, and then we have a reality check, like a slap in the face because we know just how blessed we are,” she said. “Around the holidays we are always thankful for what we have, for our health and for our family…when this holiday comes it is going to be, I don’t know that I can even put it into words.”
She added the experience taught her to think more about others and their experience. She said many in her profession learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. It is a theory of motivation which states that five categories of human needs dictate an individual’s behavior. There are five levels in Maslow’s pyramid. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.
“I can see now when kids are displaced or they are shoved around from house to house, they don’t know where their socks are…it has put things in perspective, it makes me appreciate things and people more,” she said. “I’m a teacher and we’ve been trained to think about kids’ backgrounds and where they may have struggles in their lives, those things take precedent.
Hill said she is ready to be back in the comfort of home.
“It’s just little things you don’t think about, like getting ready for work, you have things you do, you have space,” she said.
But this year, if they are truly “home” for the holidays, she said she plans to take it easy and enjoy it.
“If we are in the home by Christmas, it is just going to be bliss,” she said. “I am just going to sit back and chill and forget all about the hustle and bustle.”
Note: Hendrix Park, close to the Hill’s home, the damaged gym was torn down in August to make way for a new gym.
In addition, the Bryan County Courthouse had major wind and water damage resulting from tornado, but the structure is sound, officials said and the Courthouse is anticipated to be fully operational again by the end of 2023.
Black Creek Golf Club reopened in July, but is still working on recovering from the tornado. A number of families are also still picking up the pieces after the storm.