Americus man survives mighty toss; Habitat will help again

March 6, 2007

Americus --  Many Americus and Sumter County residents were forced to ride out Thursday's storm inside their homes.  Many were injured, now their harrowing tales of how they survived as their homes crumbed around them are being told. 

Everywhere you look in the business community in Americus you can see the damage of this storm, like the Winn Dixie and especially in the surrounding neighborhoods.  We found a man who had his own Wizard of Oz story to tell about how he and his home were lifted by the tornado, and thrown nearly half the length of a football field.

Most of Gary Merritt's home is down in the ditch.  Gary was inside the house Thursday night when it began to pull apart. "I heard something that sounded like a strong motor, maybe a jet or a train, accompanied with powerful winds, so I put the TV on mute." 

Gary was huddled in his living room when the full force of the winds struck. "The house went up in the air.  I was inside the house and the house started going over the ditch area and it was real high in the air and that's when all this debris was flying."

Gary tried to shield himself as best he could. "I tried to cover my face and I saw myself going over in the ditch."

Suddenly the house started to break apart. "When the house got up real high, it started coming loose when it started coming loose, the wind got up under me and dropped me over in the ditch."

Gary landed hard enough to sprain his ankle and leg. "Something landed on top of me and so I shielded myself and everything just dropped."

When the wind finally stopped I noticed I was trapped. Gary was eventually able to get clear of the debris. "I tried to get out of the ditch, I couldn't get out, there was a blanket in the ditch I grabbed the blanket, grabbed the board with the nails on, pulled myself out, but I was steady yelling for 'help, help, help.'"

Gary was finally able to walk to a neighbor's for help but still has many unanswered questions from that night. "I really don't know why it happened, why did I live through it, I'm still kind of confused about the whole thing."

Gary Merritt's home was a Habitat for Humanity house.  New Horizon Habitat has volunteered to build Merritt a new home on the same site for the amount of the insurance check, and they said they'll try to get it done as soon as possible.

Merritt's neighbor was also thrown from her home into the nearby cemetery, she remains hospitalized with injuries.

Habitat for Humanity has built 460 homes in Sumter County and they were out helping home owners like Gary Merritt dig out, Tuesday. College students from Toledo, Ohio who had volunteered to come to Albany to build homes for Flint River Habitat for Humanity were rerouted to Americus. 

They worked in Merritt's yard picking up the pieces of his home.  On Saturday, President George Bush put out the call for Habitat's help, but the local chapter says that's a big order to fill.   "Solving the housing need of what they're talking maybe a couple hundred families that live below the poverty level that need houses, that's bigger than a bread box, so we need some help with that," said Mary Ann Crowley, New Horizon Habitat for Humanity. 

According to Crowley there could be hundreds of families with damaged homes below the poverty level that may need assistance.  Habitat for Humanity International has pledged their support.  Right now the organization is waiting for a number to determine how many families will need financial support.