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Tornado anniversary: Couple rebuilds after home destroyed
Richard and Sharon Kennedy
Richard and Sharon Kennedy stand in their front yard on a recent afternoon in front of their recently rebuilt home. They were able to move in Feb. 14, 10 months after their 40-year-old home in Pembroke was destroyed by the EF4 tornado that ripped through North Bryan, killing one person and causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

See related story: Tornado aftermath: A lot done, a lot to do

A year has passed since the tornado entered Richard and Sharon Kennedy’s life, and much is different.

The massive 42-year-old four-bedroom house they shared for 26 years is gone, and so are many of the things they saved from a lifetime spent enjoying life – ornaments and mementos from Christmases, Easters, Halloweens, any excuse to get together with family and friends and celebrate.

It’s the house they still mourn.

It was, said Richard, “everything I ever wanted in a house. I loved that house.”

His wife called it the kind of house that made you feel at home.

“Our home was country, and it was dated, and it was old timey,” Sharon said. “And it needed remodeling and every week there was something tearing up in it, but I never knew how much I loved it until I didn’t have it. It was a comfortable house. We didn’t worry about people coming in with their shoes on, we didn’t worry about kids or dogs coming in. It was comfortable, it was lived in, it was home.”

Outside, there was the 20 by 40 in-ground swimming pool and the perfect barn with all the odds and ends Richard had held onto, for decades.

“I wasn’t a hoarder, but I collected little stuff, stupid stuff, really,” he said. “The handle of a rake, or piece of rope or electric copper wire. I don’t do it now. I don’t care about it no more. I don’t need it, and it’s just not that important anymore.”

The tornado made that happen.

Sharon was at home around 5:30 p.m. April 5, 2022 when she got the weather alert from Savannah NBC affiliate WSAV telling her there was a tornado warning for Pembroke. She grabbed their Labrador retriever Lucy and got as far into a pantry as she could.

And waited. She never saw the EF4 tornado that hit her home and ultimately took it away.

At the same time, her husband Richard, a contractor, was driving home from Savannah trying to get there, and trying to call Sharon, dialing repeatedly. He was rounding the curve where Highway 280 meets Highway 204 and saw the tornado behind him as it headed toward Hendrix Park.

When Richard got to Pembroke he had to go around damage from the storm, over to Camellia Road and then over to Payne Road and their home, which sits almost in the middle of a 50-acre section of land off Bedingfield Drive surrounded by pine trees and massive oaks. He couldn’t get there by pickup, and had to climb over and under trees along with everybody else.

By then some of his co-workers had gotten to Sharon, and had a time of it trying to convince her to come out of the pantry.

“I didn’t think it was safe,” she said. “I was afraid the house would fall.”

Sharon described the storm from her shelter in the pantry as sounding as if a series of explosions had gone off. Trees tearing into the side of the house. Glass shattering. The foundation shaking. “It was like we were being bombed,” she said. “I knew it was horrible, I could tell it was pulling the top floor off.”

After the storm had passed, the Kennedys and friends spent the night saving what they could. Photos, important papers. The scale of the damage was revealed in ways both large and small. Oak trees that had lined a driveway knocked over. Keepsakes saved to perhaps pass down to future generations blown into the swimming pool.

“Our attic was full of what people would probably call junk, but it meant a lot to us,” Sharon said. “There were years and years of glass Christmas ornaments we’d collected. Most of the things in the attic and on the top floor ended up in the swimming pool, or further.”

Work on recovering from the tornado began immediately. Construction equipment arrived around midnight that same day and men began clearing away fallen trees and debris. Days and weeks and months passed.

Richard and Sharon’s friends and family and contacts in the construction field helped them rebuild. They are fortunate, they say, that their insurance company was good to them, and praise churches and organizations ranging from Wendy Futch at Bryan County Family Connection to the folks at the Black Rifle Coffee Company to others, anyone and everyone who helped. Dozens at a time.

But they were homeless immediately after the storm, and numb. After a trip to Walmart in Pooler to buy clothes and toothbrushes and get medication the Kennedys stayed with a son in Guyton for a while. They eventually put a camper on their land and stayed there while the rebuilding continued. They lived in the camper for four months. It felt like a year, Sharon said.

Still, things were coming along.

Getting electricity from Canoochee Power was a reason to celebrate, and an even bigger celebration was when they got water back.

“You want to see somebody cheer, you would’ve seen that when power was back on and then the spigot was turned on and water came out,” Richard said.

In February, on Valentines Day, the Kennedys moved into their new home, a spacious but smaller brick home. There are still no pictures on the wall or ornaments on the shelves.

That will come, they said, as they cope with what could have happened and what did.

“If I had not gotten that alert from the National Weather Service on my iPhone from WSAV, if I had not had that on my phone I wouldn’t have lived,” Sharon said. “If the dog had been upstairs that day, I would have gone upstairs to get there and I wouldn’t have lived.”

She said now the “most important things are the moments you spend with the people you love the most,” she said. “I tend to call my son a lot more now than I did before. I don’t take things for granted like I did before. Material things don’t seem to mean much at all to me right now. It’s just live, live for this moment.”

Still, she has kept an old green T-shirt she saved from a long-past St. Patrick’s Day celebration. It says Lucky on the front, inside a four-leaf clover. Sharon was wearing it when the tornado hit.

Lucky, but changed. “There are moments I don’t understand why it happened to me,” Richard said. “Why was the next lot untouched, nothing broken over there, and we were devastated? But I don’t dwell on it, I’ve got so much to keep my mind occupied. One of the hardest things about a tornado is you’re useless against it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Sharon says she doesn’t know if what she has now is PTSD, but storms bring on anxiety and fear and worry all rolled into one. She cries easily.

“If PTSD is what you call being neurotic about the weather, and being scared, and having a panic attack, then I have it,” she said. “And I’m not sure when it will end.”

Like many, the Kennedys recognize storms are getting worse and more frequent, and now that they’ve been through a tornado, the more tornado alerts get their attention, and the more they pay attention to the damage wrought upon others.

“You turn on the TV seems there’s always something about tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama and all the mass destruction, and it used to be you might watch it a second or two and then you turn the TV to something else,” Richard said. “We leave it on in our house now, and we watch it, because we can understand and we feel for the people, because we’ve been through it. You can’t imagine it until it happens.”

Sharon, who was born and raised in Effingham County, said she wanted to move back there after the tornado. But she made a deal with her husband, a Pembroke native and lifelong resident.

“We have a tornado shelter now,” she said.

“That was something I put my foot down on. I don’t care how little the house is, I don’t care how plain it is. I will not live in another house without a tornado shelter.”

The Kennedys aren’t complainers. They know in a way they’re fortunate and that others fared worse from the storm and needed thoughts and prayers and help. Some still do.

But the tornado took it’s toll on the Kennedys.

“I don’t wish it on nobody,” Richard said. “It’s life changing.”

Lucy the Labrador.
Lucy the Labrador.
Richard and Sharon Kennedy home 1
Richard and Sharon Kennedy 2
Richard and Sharon Kennedy 3
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