This story originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Georgia's Cities.
The destruction caused by the 2011 lightning strike and fire that took the city of Donalsonville nearly one year to clean up.
Natural disasters are a common occurrence throughout the state. Tornadoes, hurricanes, severe storms, floods and wildfires wreak havoc on communities. Some cities are learning that preparation is key to dealing with the forces of nature. This preparation combined with resolve, strong leadership and a unified community are credited with helping communities bounce back from devastation.
In April 2011, a tornado ripped through Ringgold as Ringgold City Manager Dan Wright vividly remembers it. It was 8:30 p.m. on April 27 and he was returning home from a trip to the pharmacy. His wife had just gotten home from the hospital following surgery. He and his family were fine but when he started getting calls from friends and colleagues asking if he was OK, he got on his city vehicle’s radio to inquire about what was happening elsewhere in Ringgold.
What he learned was shocking—an F-4 tornado cut a path a half-mile wide across the city. Homes were decimated, businesses were damaged and one person was dead.
However, two years after the tornado, much of the city made a comeback.
Wright credits establishing a cooperative relationship with another government official for a faster and smoother process in submitting claims and receiving federal assistance. Wright said he and the Catoosa County manager agreed to work together on claims, which FEMA officials told them was not unusual.
“We have a good working relationship,” said Wright.
“We all work for the same people…they’re all taxpayers,” he said. “It made no sense to have everything separated out. The administrative costs would be twice as much.”
“I would never want to live through that again,” said Wright. “While some buildings may look better than they did before the tornado, the overall loss of businesses that never rebuilt outweighs the buildings that have been improved.”
The new 6,000-square-foot building now at the site of the Donalsonville disaster is being leased to Bainbridge State College for $1 a year.
In Donalsonville, a lightning strike in April 2011 resulted in the destruction of an entire downtown block—about seven to eight buildings and businesses. Many were mom and pop type operations such as a beauty salon, gift shop and an insurance company.
According to Donalsonville Mayor Dan Ponder it took nearly a year to get the site cleaned up since one property owner lived out of state and another property had multiple owners. Only two or three business reopened in another part of town, he said.
“In the middle of town we had a big scar,” said Ponder.
Now city officials are preparing to open a new $1.5 million, 6,000-square-foot facility at the site, which Ponder considers “first class.” A foundation made up of Donalsonville business leaders purchased the land and is leasing the facility to Bainbridge State College for $1 a year. It’s expected to open in April.
Located at the corner of Cherry Street and US-84, the structure is highly visible to motorists passing through the town. The mayor said it was purposely designed to be noticed as “more than a storefront.”
Donalsonville officials expect that the new development will spur more economic growth. “We’re working to become the fastest and the most connected rural city in America,” said Ponder. “The facility is the perfect fit.”
Donalsonville also faced a peanut warehouse fire in October 2015, which resulted in a $7 million loss for the business. It was insured. Now the city is in talks with the property owner and is hopeful something “bigger and better” will happen on that property.
Ponder believes tragedies don’t have to be the demise of a community. “Natural disasters in these two cases have been positive,” he said.