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One year after tornado, Newnan mayor reflects on recovery and work still to be done

Almost 500 homes were marked unlivable after Georgia's strongest tornado in a decade.

NEWNAN, Ga. — Walking near Newnan High School along Lagrange Street, it is still evident that a tornado was there one year ago. 

“We still have a long way to go. We had almost 500 houses that had a red tag, which means you couldn't go in, or a yellow tag, which meant you could go in but you couldn't stay there," described Newnan Mayor Keith Brady, who took 11Alive on a tour of the damage still left a year after Georgia's strongest tornado in a decade. "Of those 500 houses, we still have about 90 that don't have permits to do the major repairs that need to be done"

Right after the twister hit in 2021, Brady called his city manager, Cletus Phillips, and told him to come pick him up so that they could go to the storm path together. However, Phillips couldn't make it to Brady. The damage swath was so immense, roads all across town were blocked off.

Brady would eventually make his own way to the Greenville-Lagrange historic district. 

“I tried to walk into that neighborhood right over there, on Lagrange street, and it was so bad I couldn’t walk in,” he told 11Alive of that day.

There were trees and live wires down everywhere, blocking the roadways that separated Brady from residents trapped in the rubble and debris. Police and other first responders told him to turn around, it was too dangerous.

Brady would return the next morning when the sun was up, shining a bright spotlight on the destruction.

When asked to describe that day, Brady paused for a moment, then replied, "heartbreaking is the only word to describe it. But at the same time, uplifting.”

The community came together and Brady, the mayor of Newnan since 1994, expected nothing less from his residents. Some showed up with chainsaws, clearing the roadways littered with trees, while churches pulled wagons with food to feed people, he explained.

The city worked quickly to bring in other contractors to help clear the roads of debris so that power crews could work to restore electricity in the coming days and weeks.

Fast forward to present day, and a few houses have finished the rebuilding process but it's evident there is still work to be done. Some of the houses have boarded up windows, waiting on supply chain delays. Others are still untouched with roofs torn and walls partially missing, leaving interior furniture exposed. 

Credit: WXIA
Newnan Mayor Keith Brady walks along Lagrange street nearly 1 year after the EF-4 tornado

It's a long road to recovery, and one that has been different for every home owner. Some had the means to rebuild right away, being either fully insured or having the financial capabilities to rebuild but, many other residents needed help. 

Credit: WXIA

FEMA granted public assistance for the tornado disaster, allocating funds to rebuild the school and other public facilities. But, FEMA denied the request for individual assistance in Newnan; an issue that's a sore spot for Brady.

"FEMA did not do its part and the government did not do its part with the individual assistance and that’s what really has hurt people who were uninsured or underinsured,” he explained.

Brady said when the initial denial came in, FEMA did not give a reason why they were not granting the individual assistance. Gov. Brian Kemp eventually stepped in and filed an appeal; however, that was also denied.

Nonprofit organizations like the Coweta Community Foundation stepped in to help bridge the gap, raising over $2,000,000. But there is still a need for more help, which Brady was hoping would come from FEMA. 

RELATED: 1 year after EF-4 tornado, Coweta County community says they're still recovering

At this point, the city is moving forward, seeing what can be done about the remaining 90 properties untouched. It voted earlier this week to demolish one of the apartment buildings on Lagrange street. Investors own the property and had placed no efforts into the rebuilding process. Brady saw it as an eye sore. Over the last year, he has constantly been an advocate for ways to move forward in the rebuilding process.

FEMA estimates that it will take a total of roughly three years for the city to finish rebuilding.

Yet homes are slowly rebuilt in the coming months and years, what will take much longer to replenish is their tree canopy. 

One year after the tornado, one can still see twisted and mangled trees as well as others missing limbs or with just the trunk. In total, 567 acres of tree canopy were lost in the tornado. 

Credit: WXIA
One year after tornado, trees remain torn and mangled, twisted in the wake of the EF-4 in Newnan, GA

Out of this came the organization 'Plant Newnan', which is a public-private partnership with a goal of planting more trees and replenishing the tree canopy in the center of Coweta county. 

They do have arborists and tree experts on staff who are helping to determine which damaged trees still have life to live and more growth to come. However, new trees were a must for the city's plan to put down new roots after the tornado.

Those will be given away on the morning of Saturday, March 26 at Greenville St Park. Their new roots will mark the next chapter of the city’s resiliency and growth.

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