Elliott Minor  /  AP file
Gary Merritt, 41, stands on the edge of a 20-foot-deep ditch on Monday in Americus, Ga., showing how high his house was lifted by a tornado last week.
updated 3/6/2007 1:03:33 PM ET 2007-03-06T18:03:33

Habitat for Humanity International has built homes all over the world. But now it has some work to do in its own backyard: A twister cut a devastating path through the organization’s hometown last week.

“We are involved in helping this community get back on its feet both as a corporate citizen and as a part of our mission to serve low-income families,” said Chris Clarke, senior vice president of communications.

A barrage of tornadoes and thunderstorms across the South and the Midwest last week that killed eight students at a high school in Enterprise, Ala., also left two people dead in Americus, a town of 17,000 people about 130 miles south of Atlanta.

The American Red Cross estimated 173 homes were destroyed in Americus and 198 were heavily damaged. At least three houses that had been built in Americus by the local Habitat affiliate were destroyed and another was knocked off its foundation.

The Habitat affiliate said it will rebuild the four houses, and work with the Fuller Center for Housing — a similar organization founded in Americus in 2005 by Habitat founder Millard Fuller — to identify people who need help and find them temporary housing.

Town bore brunt of storms
Damage statewide was put at $135 million, with about half of that in Americus.

The tornado victims were a cross-section of the community, some wealthy, some middle-class and some poor. The two housing charities said they will focus on poor families, who are less likely to have insurance or other means to help them recover.

Habitat, a Christian ministry founded by the Fullers in 1976, has built 200,000 houses in nearly 100 countries, including more than 700 for Hurricane Katrina survivors along the Gulf Coast. The Fullers founded the Fuller Center after they were fired in a dispute with Habitat’s board of directors. Their fledgling organization built 24 homes for Katrina victims in Shreveport, La., last year.

Habitat builds only new homes, but the Fuller Center builds new homes and offers a repair service for needy homeowners.

Habitat’s Americus affiliate, New Horizons Habitat, has built 480 houses in the town, said Mary Ann Crowley, the group’s executive director.

One of those houses belonged to Gary Merritt, whose home was slammed into a 20-foot ditch by the twister.

Merritt, who is 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, said he was ironing in his kitchen when the tornado threw him across the house. Some of the walls collapsed and a bedroom and bathroom seemed to explode.

‘Tossed ... around like I was a feather’
“I thought I was a strong guy, but that tornado tossed me around like I was a feather or a piece of paper,” he said.

Bleeding and covered with mud, he clawed his way out of the ditch, Merritt said. A neighbor lent him a pair of sneakers that were much too small for his size-14 feet so that he could walk to the town’s storm-damaged hospital, several blocks away.

“I was tiptoeing in those shoes,” he said. He was treated for cuts on his shoulder, legs and arm.

As he returned Monday to his demolished home, neighbors came up and hugged him.

“I’m just glad he’s here,” said Darius Harris, 40, a childhood friend.

Millard Fuller and his wife were attending a musical in Americus when the tornado cut power to the theater and interrupted the performance.

“I have a network of thousands,” he said. “I think they have confidence in me. They’re willing to donate time and money to people who need a helping hand.”

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