REBUILDING WEST POINT: Reflecting one year after tornado

Published 10:15 am Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A crumpled brick building leveled by the roof of a neighboring house. 

That’s all Ed Kelley could see of his church on Sunday morning after the storm in the early mornings of March 26, 2023. Kelley, treasurer of Bethel Baptist Church, said he and Pastor Chris Hendricks were the first to arrive. 

“It literally took the roof off the house next door and set it on top of the church,” Kelley said. 

Email newsletter signup

Almost exactly one year ago, a 20-mile stretch of land across West Point and Troup County was ravaged after an EF-3 tornado touched down. In thirty minutes, half of a rural West Point community became unrecognizable. 

In March 2023, Troup County’s fourth tornado of the year tore through the small community outside West Point city limits. Several homes and businesses were destroyed, including the West Point Motel and Bethel Baptist Church. 

“It was on the ground in Troup County for 30 minutes, covering a stretch of 22 miles,” said Zac Steele, Troup County EMA director. “It did some damage from one end of the county to the other. As it all unfolded, it was a wild experience for everybody involved in it.”

Initially, Steele said they didn’t realize that the county had even been hit. Calls began coming in for fallen trees, but the storm wasn’t finished wreaking havoc. 

“What a lot of people might have forgotten in a year’s time is the cell phones went out very shortly after, so that affected the ability to communicate,” he said.

Steve Smith, a deacon of Bethel Baptist, scrolled through photos of the damage from that day on his phone. In one shot, the roof of the little, rural church sat on top of the church pews where he and his wife Louise sat every Sunday. 

The following Sunday the congregation met in the parking lot under a tent for service.

“This is not the church, we’re the church,” Smith said. “This is just a building.”

The West Point Motel was also damaged. Only the brick side walls were left standing. A few people were pulled out from under the rubble of their homes but luckily no one was killed in the storm.

“The devastation and the turmoil that it created in this little community was unbelievable,” Kelley said. 

The tornado also hit the Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain. Miles of fencing and almost 20 animal habitats were damaged during the storm. Two tigers escaped from their damaged enclosure, which became a national story, though the tigers never left the park area and were quickly recaptured. The park was closed for 20 days for cleanup and repairs, costing almost $1 million in revenue. 

According to a press release from Parks! America, the safari has invested $1 million in the park, having three miles of fencing repaired and a new giraffe barn built since last year.

Today, a brand-new church stands in the same spot thanks to the efforts of its congregation. Kelley, a longtime contractor, said he ordered the new building one month after the tornado struck. 

Though the church was insured, Kelley said they also owed a debt of gratitude to several local community members — Jeff Landrum, Mike Givorns, Bill Teague and Trey Thompson. Aside from them, Kelley said the churchgoers supported much of the construction of the new building.

From November to March, Bethel Baptist Church worked to have the new church open by the one-year anniversary, a goal they met with just days to spare. 

The Chattahoochee Fuller Center, Carpenters for Christ and other community groups lent a hand with the slow work of cleanup and rebuilding. On May 6, the Chattahoochee Fuller Center hosted a Cleanup Day where volunteers flocked to the community. They also helped rebuild homes for some of the families.

“The work we saw done down there by the community and the nonprofits and any resources available was fantastic,” Steele said. 

In light of the anniversary, Steele encouraged people to stay vigilant and stay updated with weather apps like CivicReady. 

“We saw firsthand the damage and devastation that our neighbors and our own families and friends saw right here in Troup County,” Steele said. “It’s just important to remain vigilant and prepared for the next storm.”