NEWNAN, Ga. — When Michael Phillips was surveying the damage to his home after a tornado devastated Newnan last month, there's no way he would have thought the house next door, in even worse shape, would become his refuge in just a few weeks.
But now he's painting its walls and caulking its cracks, moved in and living in the repaired home, which he said has been an unexpected - and needed - upgrade for his family.
In this way the tornado, which he protected his pregnant fiancée and children from with a mattress, he said has been a blessing. The new house is bigger, giving them more space with a baby on the way and allowing his two boys to have their own rooms.
"Surprise isn’t even a good word for it. It was one of those things, it had to have been meant to happen that way. Some things are just meant to happen," Phillips said. "A lot of stuff I needed got answered."
It would have been hard to imagine immediately after the tornado.
Photos | Michael Phillips' home damaged in Newnan tornado
While the house he was renting was in bad shape, Phillips said it looked even worse next door, where a big tree had crashed through the roof of the home. But while his landlord told him to move on, evidently deciding to leave the house be for the time being, the property owner next door soon had a crew out making repairs.
Without anything else to do, Phillips pitched in, helping saw fallen trees and lending a hand however else he could. He developed a rapport with the landlord, which wound up being his lifeline just as aid from the Red Cross - who had been putting his and other families up in hotels after the tornado - was coming to an end.
"Honestly I guess by me just helping him get the trees off his house and doing some other stuff, he saw fit to give me a chance to move into his property. And that was literally like our last day at the hotel through the Red Cross. Like that morning they was telling us, hey we gotta be out by 10:30," Phillips said. "And the (landlord) finally told me if you have the money and all, to come on and sign my lease. So I did that and now I'm working on getting the house up to par."
The landlord is giving him a bit of a grace period on rent, as Phillips, who works as a trucker, prepares to get back out on the road this week. He said he's been painting and sanding to put the finishing touches on the house's interior, a trade he performs on the side and labor which will go toward rent.
If this living situation hadn't opened up, Phillips said, he would've been hauling more than just whatever was in the back of his truck on his next trip out.
"I told my fiancée, I said look we just have to get in the rig for a week or two and we have to go cross country for a few weeks, get some money up and think of something from there," he said was his plan. "I was hoping I didn’t have to do it but, worst case scenario, one thing I realized about driving a truck – I always have a house. It may not be a big one, but I have somewhere to sleep in."
Phillips is grateful it didn't come to that, though. And grateful that, unbelievably, his family is coming out ahead after the tornado.
"Knowing that we're stepping up and doing better than what we did, just a plus for me," he said. "I think it's brought us a lot closer. We've realized that in these type of situations, without family it's kind of hard to get through stuff like this... just my little kids give me motivation, me and them playing, knowing they have their own room makes everybody feel good you know."
He said knowing his family has a sturdy roof over their head, so quickly after the tornado and with many in the community still trying to pick up the pieces, makes him feel "almost a little bit whole again."
And he doesn't chalk it up to chance.
"It had to have already been planned," he said. "It wasn’t something that came up overnight, I can tell you that."