Murray County Unites after Tornado Strikes During Global Pandemic

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Most will look back on Easter 2020 as the holiday where social distancing and shelter-in-place orders replaced traditional celebrations. And for residents of Murray County, it will be remembered as the night a deadly tornado ripped through their community while they were already contending with an unprecedented global pandemic.

Seven people were killed and nearly two dozen injured after the 7.8-mile long tornado tore through the northwestern part of the county. Pamela Bishop, coordinator of Murray County Family Connection, said 62 homes were destroyed and 254 homes or structures, including three schools, suffered some degree of damage.

Pandemic relief quickly turned into tornado relief to find shelter and clothing for displaced families. Within days, clothing stations were established at several local churches and faith-based organizations. Volunteers were enlisted to clean up debris, make food deliveries, and repair roofs.

Meanwhile, Bishop started a call center and worked with community partners to address tornado victims’ needs—an effort made all the more challenging due to COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. (As of May 29, there were 85 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death in Murray County.) The Salvation Army and Red Cross sheltered 45 families, and everyone was encouraged to use the marked six-foot boundaries.

“We took action immediately,” said Patricia Thompson, business manager for The Salvation Army in Dalton. “On day one we went into each neighborhood assessing the damage and the needs. By day two we were lodging and feeding families, which is still continuing today.”

Bishop, who also chairs the community disaster drill team within the school system, didn’t miss a beat in responding to this devastating crisis within a crisis. “Several disaster drills have been performed using numerous scenarios,” she said. “The members of the team were contacted immediately, and a modified plan was put into action.”

Because of the pandemic, donated clothing and household items had to be stored for three to five days before distributing. Luckily there was plenty of inventory in the shuttered Salvation Army stores. “During any disaster, clothing is the first thing people want to help with,” Thompson said. “Our stores had been closed for over two weeks because of coronavirus, so this allowed us to have families enter the store to shop one at a time and  sanitize in between.”

At the shelters, masks and gloves were distributed to victims and volunteers, and high-touch items such as clipboard and pens, were sanitized after each use.

It wasn’t long before assistance went beyond housing and clothing needs. The Murray County Collaborative did exactly what its name implies and connected with partners in the community for residents to get the help they needed, mostly free of cost. For example:

  • two residents received transportation to an optometrist and received new eyeglasses,
  • car keys were replaced by a local Toyota dealership,
  • six storage units were secured for several months,
  • local pharmacies provided first aid kits and replaced lost prescriptions,
  • churches donated gas cards that were distributed to victims through the Salvation Army,
  • one resident received denture replacements, and
  • a young man received five pairs of difficult-to-find size 15 shoes thanks to donations from neighboring counties.

Beyond that, Jonathan Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at Chatsworth Elementary and wrestling coach at Murray County High School, teamed up with Mark Sloan of Allstar Screen Printing to design, print, and sell “Murray Strong” T-shirts. The pair raised $3,600 that they wanted to go directly to the tornado victims, so they donated the money to Murray County Family Connection to meet their needs.

Bishop, who has lived in Murray County for 65 years and taught for 35 in the county school system, is not surprised by the outpouring of generosity. “We’re a caring, giving county, and Family Connection strives to connect all our families through that caring, giving attitude,” she said. “Being able to make those connections allows us to continue to thrive.”

Close to 30 of the sheltered families have been placed in permanent housing, which initially had no furnishings. The community once again responded with donations, creating a new challenge—space to store the items. Bishop reached out to Murray’s development director to ask about vacant warehouses, and he provided several options. One warehouse owner agreed to let Bishop use the building to store the furniture. A Facebook page, Restore Murray, provides information on warehouse hours and items as well as other pertinent information, including a link to an application from Georgia Realtor for financial assistance for tornado victims.

Bishop said because a majority of the destruction was done to mobile homes, she was told the county did not meet the minimum damage required to receive federal funding. Just over 69 percent of residents in Murray are homeowners, according to the latest KIDS COUNT data.

Volunteers have spent countless hours in the clean-up effort and gathering food donations. “Securing food has been the biggest challenge. Our community was already experiencing a need before the tornado touched down,” said Bishop, who noted that 1,357 households with children in Murray received food stamps. “With the help of many people and many resources, we are attempting to provide a box of food per week to 150 families.”

The Georgia Family Connection Collaborative will continue to partner with the Salvation Army to get the remainder of the tornado victims placed in permanent housing. “Murray County is a great community to work with,” Thompson said. “They really came together to help each other.”

Bishop sees that first-hand every day. “The saying is, ask and you shall receive,” Bishop said. “I’ve asked for a lot these past few weeks and I’ve been blessed to receive many things. Through love and connections, our community will grow stronger.”

Bill Valladares
GaFCP Communications Director

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Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public-private partnership created by the State of Georgia and investors from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities.