Bobby Gene Harrison, Jeffery Brian McGill, Shirley Sachie McKinney, Brenda Gail Myers, Marty Joe Myers, Douglas Penley, Bessie Lynn Rice and J.L. Richesin.
As long as memories live in Greene County, the victims of the devastating tornado outbreak of April 27-28, 2011, will not be forgotten.
A memorial service for the eight victims of the deadly tornadoes that tore through Camp Creek, Horse Creek and other sections of the county 10 years ago was held Tuesday night at the tornado victims’ memorial on Camp Creek Road.
About 150 people attended. The skies were clear and weather was mild during the memorial service, a stark contrast from the turbulent conditions a decade ago on the night of April 27.
Law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs, utility workers, neighbors and others who came to pay their respects were on hand, along with at the wife of a tornado victim.
Susie Harrison was living on Tabor Road with her husband, Bobby Gene Harrison. She suffered life-threatening injuries requiring long-term hospitalization in the fast-moving, powerful tornado that destroyed their home.
Harrison attended with relatives. She placed red roses on the memorial in her husband’s memory. Harrison exchanged hugs and a few words with well-wishers after the service.
“I very much appreciate these people having the memorial. I am here out of respect for my husband,” Harrison said. “It was just amazing here (tonight).”
TOLL OF TORNADO
Thousands of Greene County residents spent fearful hours on the night of April 27-28, 2011, huddled in basements and other shelters listening to a series of broadcast tornado warnings. At least five powerful tornadoes touched down in Camp Creek, Horse Creek and other nearby communities, carving a destructive path that leveled structures, splintered trees and left dozens of roads impassable.
In addition to the eight people who lost their lives, more than 300 people suffered injuries. The tornadoes destroyed at least 48 houses and 38 mobile homes, and caused major damage to more than 35 others in Greene County. Damage to homes, outbuildings and other property ran into the tens of millions of dollars.
Some people moved away, including Susie Harrison. Many rebuilt and remain. Help came quickly when light dawned April 28. Neighbor helped neighbor and first responders and other volunteers rushed to devastated areas.
The spirit of good will and the selfless efforts of many is one of the things that remains most vivid in the minds of survivors like Wayne Bettis.
Bettis, a 50-year member of the Camp Creek Ruritan, sponsor of the memorial service, is a former national president of the organization and a central figure in the massive recovery effort that commenced within hours of the storms passing through.
Bettis was also a leader in the AIDNET organization, formed after the 2001 floods in Greene County and re-activated after the tornadoes. AIDNET connected hundreds of volunteers and funneled materials to those whose homes were destroyed. The recovery effort spearheaded by AIDNET lasted more than two years.
Through the efforts of AIDNET and volunteer workers from Greene County and across the nation, at least 114 homes were built or repaired and more than $700,000 worth of materials were donated to help survivors get on with their lives.
“There was so much good that came out of that,” Bettis said. “It was an amazing thing what these people did. They are very resilient, very amazing people.”
As national president of Ruritan, Bettis participated in many community aid efforts, but said Tuesday night nothing compares to the outpouring of goodwill in his home community that arrived in the wake of the tornadoes.
“I’ve never seen people do anything like that,” Bettis said. “When there was a need, something came out. It was incredible.”
Bettis said that despite the tragic toll of the tornadoes, the good work done by volunteers and the AIDNET organization remains one of his most cherished memories.
“I would not go through that again for a million dollars but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience. It was such a blessing to see (the response).”
Community efforts after the tornadoes resulted in the victims’ memorial, the construction of Camp Creek Memorial Park where Tuesday night’s service was held and eventually, the construction of a state-of-the art medical facility across the street.
“This is some of the good stuff that came out of the tornado,” Bettis said. “It’s a testament to this community.”
AN ‘INSIDIOUS ATTACK’
Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison was keynote speaker. He honored the eight victims of the tornadoes and spoke of the many lives “so tragically affected by the tornadoes 10 years ago.”
“As it is with most that I have talked to these last few weeks, it is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since this awful tragedy,” Morrison said. “It is only fitting and proper and of paramount importance that we use these losses and events as an honored memorial to remember, to learn and prepare for the next disaster, so that the price paid 10 years ago in life and property is not lost or in vain.”
Morrison cited a Biblical passage from the Book of Joshua.
“Like the Israelities, God has brought us together this day, now 10 years thence, to honor and memorialize the loss of our neighbors and remember this tragic, widespread weather event so that we would not forget the trials and challenges in living in our own promised land, nor forget the blessings that God has provided us here in Greene County,” Morrison said.
Ten years previous to the moments Morrison spoke Tuesday night, Greene Countains were anxiously turning “a prayerful eye to the skies” as broadcast storm warnings proclaiming “imminent doom” flooded the airwaves.
“Tonight, we remember. We remember the eight precious souls snatched away in an insidious attack in the middle of the night. Eight precious, irreplaceable souls created by God, gone in an instant,” Morrison said.
The victims and injured are remembered, as was “the gigantic task before them of picking up the pieces and continuing on,” Morrison said.
The tornadoes, Morrison said, “yielded scars that are still clearly visible on people and property, scars that require more than a generation for recovery.”
Morrison urged those at the memorial service to apply lessons learned from the 2011 storms, even as communication systems, emergency planning and other services crippled by the tornadoes have been improved.
“We have learned about the monumental task of accountability and recovery in a mass disaster,” Morrison said. “We learned to come together as a family, as neighbors helping neighbors … we learned to build back, to clean up, to help up and to love a little better those affected most.”
Lessons learned from the outbreak have given the community strong resolve, Morrison said.
“We continue to prepare for the next challenge, the next disaster, for there will be a next one,” Morrison said. “Individuals and government are more alert and vigilant today to the shifts of weather and other potential disaster situations.”
Many Camp Creek and Horse Creek residents believed their close proximity to the mountains would shelter them from catastrophic storms.
“Individuals and families are better educated, and more keenly aware, and responsive to developing weather situations and warnings,” Morrison said. “Many more of our people today have an emergency response plan, a small cache of supplies and a communication plan with friends, family and neighbors.”
‘FOR THE COMMUNITY’
Tim Smithson, current president of the Camp Creek Ruritan Club, said the event was organized with a “dual purpose.”
“We want it to be a memorial for those who perished in the tornado and a celebration for all the people who recovered over the past 10 years,” Smithson said.
The ultimate result of the disaster “was a lot more community enthusiasm and pride,” he said.
After Morrison spoke, the youngest member of the Camp Creek Ruritan Club, teenager William Stokes, placed a wreath in memory of the victims at the memorial. There was a moment of silence and prayer.
Blue lights were activated on the many law enforcement and fire department vehicles parked nearby, and sirens were activated for 24 seconds — three seconds for each victim.
“Thank you very much. We owe you a great debt of gratitude,” Smithson told first responders.
Jeff Wilburn, chief of the Camp Creek Volunteer Fire Department, called the memorial “very appropriate to remember the lives lost.”
“The community has come a long way in healing. Without the good Lord’s guidance, we would be lost,” Wilburn said.
“We pulled together as a community and we appreciate everything that was done for the Camp Creek community,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn motioned toward the first responders and other volunteers gathered at the memorial service.
“They’re not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for the community. We are out here to help each other. That’s what America is all about.”