March 23, 2013

Years after tornado, Oakland Cemetery restored


— ATLANTA (AP) — The question never goes away. When people visit Oakland Cemetery they often look for the carnage, the downed trees and toppled stones. And then they ask:

How are you doing after the tornado?

Short answer: Atlanta’s oldest park is doing just fine.

It took nearly two years of intense work to restore the cemetery after a tornado blew through five years ago today. The tempest battered the burial ground, the final resting place of golfing great Bobby Jones, “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. And that’s just three plots: the cemetery contains about 70,000 graves, marked and unmarked.

Now, with spring imminent, the cemetery on the edge of Grant Park again is a place where the living visit the dead, where visitors take tours to learn about Atlanta’s princes as well as its paupers.

Still, reminders of the tornado linger, said David Moore, director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, the nonprofit organization that raises funds and oversees the cemetery’s upkeep. A few trees that lost huge limbs still look lopsided. Some stones are scored by dirt and debris raised by immense winds.

“It was unbelievable,” said Moore, who visited the cemetery about 18 hours after the tornado hit the site. “I mean, it was a real mess here.”

The tornado came from the west, blowing out of the dark about 9:40 p.m. The storm damaged the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, forcing the games to relocate to Georgia Tech. It shoved a steeple off a Vine City church. The twister demolished a building on DeKalb Avenue, claiming its only victim: Gregory Lee, a 45-year-old homeless man. And then it hit Oakland.

It pushed over obelisks, lifted stone angels into the sky, shredded trees. It left the burial ground covered in debris the twister had picked up as it spun across downtown - glass, paper, road signs and more. There was so much trash that workers and volunteers had to sweep the 48-acre site on their hands and knees, bagging shards of glass and other debris.

The tornado uprooted nearly 100 oaks, magnolias and other trees — so much downed wood that it filled more than 70 large dump trucks. And it damaged more than 300 stones, the destruction ranging from simple cracks in some markers to a beheaded stone angel.

Originally it was estimated the tempest caused $3 million in damages at the cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Foundation officials now think the damage totaled about $1 million.

The cemetery’s foundation has shared its hard-won expertise with others.

When an April 2011 tornado struck downtown Raleigh, the Oakland foundation offered advice on dealing with federal, state and city officials, said Jane Thurman, president of Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation. The nonprofit organization cares for three historic cemeteries, one dating to the late 18th century, in North Carolina’s capital.

Thurman recalled feeling despair when she saw the tornado’s damage — uprooted trees, toppled stones, demolished fencing. But she felt a little better after a conversation with Moore.

“He said, ‘One day, all that debris will be gone’,” Thurman said. “It seemed impossible to me, but it happened.”

Oakland is not the same as it was five years before, said Kevin Kuharic, who was the cemetery’s director of operations when the tornado hit. Now, said Kuharic, who works in Colorado, the cemetery still shows some bruises from that 2008 tempest. But that’s OK.

“It’s just another piece of history for that place,” he said. “It shouldn’t be completely erased.”