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Posted: February 22, 2009 12:00 a.m.

Ultimate damage

Couple recalls terrifying night during tornado

Amber Pittman/

Retha and Richard Garner's home sustained heavy damage from downed trees in Wednesday's tornado.

The house on High Point Falls Drive was Retha and Richard Garner’s pride and joy. They built the home in February of 1979 and 30 years later, a tornado ripped through the neighborhood, shattering the sanctuary they had found in their home and sending a tree crashing into the second story.

According to reports from the National Weather Service, an EF1 tornado with winds reaching 109 mph touched down in the High Point neighborhood, ripping trees from the ground, toppling buildings, downing power lines and ripping off roofs.

But according to the Garners, although they are devastated by the damage, Retha believes God was watching over them Wednesday night.

Retha said the couple had been watching television that evening with their beloved Pomeranian Molly when they saw the alert flash across the bottom of the screen during "Wheel of Fortune" and again during "Jeopardy" – a nightly ritual for the couple.

"It just warned about severe thunderstorms," Retha said. "We didn’t see anything threatening." But as "Nancy Grace" began at 8 p.m., Retha said she and Richard heard the wind start to kick up. The couple heard the rocking chairs start to move around on the front church and then Retha says her wind chimes started jangling like crazy.

"I looked at Richard and I remember saying it sounded like it was going to get rough. It was about that time were heard the wind coming."

The Garner’s grabbed Molly and headed into a downstairs bathroom and in less than a minute it was all over, according to Retha.

"It lasted probably all of 30 seconds but it left all this mess," she said. "It was loud and crazy and then it was done."

One large 200-year-old oak tree fell on top of their home in the area of her husband’s study and a bedroom. A storage building was overturned and more trees were ripped from the ground all around the property.

The tree that struck the house knocked a wall out of Richard’s office and the ceiling out of a bedroom. According to Retha they had some trees groomed in October and she wanted to remove the one that struck the house but Richard didn’t want to lose the tree, saying they wouldn’t have shade in the backyard if they took it down.

"It knocked down all the trees he wanted to keep," she said. "He just loved those trees."

Retha said that her insurance company told them the upstairs walls and ceiling would have to be replaced – it is already two-thirds gone, she says. But the rest of the home, surprisingly, is structurally sound.

"In the downstairs of the house it doesn’t look like anything happened at all," she said, a note of sadness in her voice. "The pictures didn’t even turn sideways on the wall. It’s unreal. If this was a small one [tornado] I would hate to see a big one."

The Garner’s took flashlights outside to check their windows Wednesday night and they saw the tree on their house. The enormity of the damage didn’t sink in until light when they saw not only their home, but their quiet neighborhood.

"I was so shocked," she said. "I wanted to cry but no tears would come. You just don’t know what to do. I was devastated."

According to a press release from State Farm Insurance, the largest home and auto insurer in the state, more than 1,000 claims were handled as of Friday afternoon for homes and businesses and more than 818 automotive claims had been called in. The release states the numbers were higher than State Farm had initially expected. In Newton County, as of Friday afternoon, the carrier had been notified of more than 25 structure claims – though no actual monetary amount of damages was being released.

Insurance Commissioner John W. Oxendine’s office also released a statement, estimating roughly $25 million in insured losses in the state of Georgia. There was no definitive number for Newton County released as of press time.

As for the Garners, they will rebuild and repair but Retha fears her home will never feel the same after the destruction left in the wake of the tornado. They are thinking of replanting her husband’s beloved trees, but are unsure of the cost at this point.

"I am sure we will live out the rest of our life here," Retha said. "But it will never be the same."

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