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Memorial service will be a time to reflect on area’s losses

POSTED: March 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Clermont resident Emily Harper will place white ribbons and flowers at the city's memorial stone for Thursday afternoon's 1998 tornado memorial service. Harper has been busy organizing the event which will mark 10 years since the deadly storm struck Hall County.

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Rainy days make Emily Harper nervous. Especially this time of year.

It was 10 years ago today that a tornado ripped through North Hall and White counties, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

Harper, a longtime Clermont resident, said she worries that another tornado could strike every time storms gather on the horizon.

"I don’t think we’ll ever get back to normal," Harper said as rain poured down Wednesday afternoon in Clermont. "Right now, I’m sitting here wondering is it going to blow us away now? Or is it going to wait until another time? It’s a feeling you never get over, and I cannot begin to imagine what the people felt that lost their loved ones."

Clermont will hold a memorial service at noon today at Clay E. Gailey Park, the site where a statue was erected in 1999 to remember 13 victims of the storm — including a Dawson County sheriff’s deputy who was hit by a car. Letters have been sent inviting the victims’ families. Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic, Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell and several area preachers will be speaking at the memorial, which is open to the public.

James Nix, Clermont’s current mayor, said today’s event will be the first organized memorial since the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.

"It’s a time to stop and reflect on the whole situation, to remember those who lost their lives and to remember all those who had an impact from the storm," Nix said.

Harper said that even before the tornado struck the morning of March 20, she knew something was wrong. She said her dog pulled at her arm trying to get her out of bed. She told her husband that something was going on, but he dismissed it as just a storm.

Moments later, the electricity went off as the storm hit with all its fury and rain pounded the house.

"Then all of the sudden it got real, real calm. It was just so scary," Harper said, who was living on King Street in Clermont at the time. "I went outside and I looked to my left and the whole hill — it had mobile homes — they were all gone. I mean, they were just blown away. By the grace of God, it spared us."

Nix was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., at the time. That morning, he said he heard the reports of a tornado hitting North Hall and began calling friends and family back home to check on his loved ones. His mother’s property was damaged, as were homes and property belonging to other family members. But no one was hurt.

"There’s a feeling that you can’t do anything because you’re that far away and know that something has happened," Nix said.

It didn’t take long after the storm for Harper and others to fan out across North Hall to start helping their neighbors. For a week, she and others helped feed the dozens who were unwilling to leave their meager belongings that were left after the storm hit.

"There were shelters set up, but most of the people didn’t want to leave what little bit they had left to go get it. And so we were taking food in to them," she said. "There were some of the older people who just weren’t going to leave their house. It didn’t matter if they didn’t have any water or power, they just weren’t going to leave their homes."

Hours after the storm, volunteers set up at the Clermont community center and made sandwiches for storm victims. Others baby-sat children too young to help in relief efforts while their parents and older siblings helped neighbors. As relief efforts continued throughout the next week, people brought clothes and other items to the community center to be given to those who had lost everything. Restaurants donated food, which volunteers delivered to tornado victims, Harper said.

"It really brought out the best in most people," Harper said.

And the volunteers weren’t just from the community; friends, family and even strangers came from other counties and other states. Harper and Nix said a group of Mennonites helped in efforts to rebuild across the area.

But amid the chaos and grief left by the storm, there was a bright spot for Harper. Family members had been gathering in Clermont for Harper’s wedding, planned for March 22, 1998. The wedding went as planned, though Harper admits she was reluctant to continue on with a celebration when so many were still dealing with adversity and so much work remained to be done.

"I felt like here my friends and neighbors were burying their dead and I felt like it was wrong of me to get married at that time, but it was too late to call it off," Harper recalled with emotion. "This one elderly lady, she told me: ‘Honey, you need to go on and get married, because something positive needs to come out of this.’ "

And the wedding did go on, despite both bride and groom being two hours late for the festivities because they were helping with cleanup efforts.

"I got married with a pair of blue jeans and a pair of work boots under my dress. And instead of having a reception, we had a little work session," Harper said. "I put them to work."

Nix noted that many positive changes were made as a result of the tragedy, including the addition of tornado sirens, emphasis on weather radios and improved radar technology to spot storms. He also said that local officials have stressed making people ready to respond when tragedy strikes, even offering training courses. Both Nix and Harper agreed that they feel Clermont is better prepared should another tornado strike the area.

"I don’t think you’re ever really prepared for anything like this, but as prepared as you can be, I think we are," Harper said.



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