The "Cinderella dress" Delana Blevins had so looked forward to wearing to prom just needed a few alterations when the tornadoes ripped through northwest Georgia late last month, blowing it away along with the rest of the tailoring shop. All she found in the rubble was a scrap of beading from the bodice.
"I was bawling my eyes out," she said. "I didn't know what to do."
The two twisters that hit April 27 razed nearly 140 homes and killed two people in this community. The prom was nearly canceled. But on Saturday night, Blevins and her good friend Marcella Lackey — whose dress met a similar fate — donned gowns donated by strangers for the teenage rite of passage. It restored some semblance of normalcy for them and more than 325 other Dade County High School students. Neither of the girls was hurt, and their homes weren't damaged. Others weren't so lucky.
"It's been a release for our kids," said Patty Priest, the schools superintendent in sprawling, rural Dade County. "It's been something they could look forward to, something to get their minds off the disaster."
With their community hobbled by destruction, the prom had to be pushed back two weeks from April 30. The students got their prom, though — thanks to the free dresses from a group called Rescue Prom, and free hairdos and makeup from shops in Chattanooga, just across the state line in Tennessee. Similar efforts were common across the southeast, which was ravaged by dozens of tornadoes that killed more than 300 people across seven states in a two-day span.
Jan Greene, a special education teacher and prom sponsor, said it was an apt reward for the teens.
"After the storm and after so many lives had been affected, I was so impressed with our students," she said. "Everywhere you looked, there was a high school student out there helping."
When the tornadoes hit, Lackey had ignored the tornado watch because they had been issued so often, yet twisters never hit. She was at a friend's house, where they huddled in the laundry room. Blevins hunkered in a hallway with her mother and two dogs, crying and praying.
"I was like, 'Oh God, this is my last moment because I thought I was going to die," Lackey said, remembering the experience with a shudder.
"Me too," Blevins said. "I'm not gonna lie. I thought it was the end."
Lackey, a self-described tomboy who'd rather be out splashing ATVs through the mud or spending time at the shooting range than getting her hair done and putting on a dress, said she hadn't really been looking forward to prom. After the storms, she treasured the carefree fun.
"I'm really excited, I actually wanted to go now," she said.
Prom also had more meaning for Blevins, who wound up with a dress she loved just as much as the one that blew away thanks to Rescue Prom, a dress drive started by local volunteers.
"My oldest daughter said, 'Mom, we've got dresses. What about their prom?' That's how it started," said Kim Massengale Goins, one of the effort's organizers.
She teamed up with Crystal Cadieux, a fellow volunteer at the American Legion, and set up a "Rescue Prom" Facebook page online around 1 a.m. May 2. In a matter of days, the volunteers received more than a thousand dresses from people all over the country.
Blevins was initially hesitant to take advantage of the free dresses.
"I was thinking, like every other Southerner does, 'Somebody probably needs it worse than I do,'" she said.
"You sit here and you go, 'I don't have a dress for prom,' and then these people step in, people that don't even know you, people that you wouldn't even meet in a thousand years and they come in and they're like, 'We're going to help you for prom,'" she said, her eyes filling with tears and her voice catching. "That means a lot to people in Dade County because people don't have much here."
Lackey, whose lost dress had been black, agonized over her choice, falling in love with a slinky, lime-green satin dress but eventually choosing a sleek, elegant pink halter dress that skimmed her slender frame and brushed the floor. Blevins also chose pink, a long gown sprinkled with sequins and silver stitching and featuring thin straps, a full skirt that billowed to the floor and a complicated lace-up back.
At the prom, students poured into a ballroom in the Chattanooga Trade & Convention Center, where a DJ flanked by two giant video screens played hip-hop, pop and slow songs. Candles flickered on the tables around the dance floor as images of city buildings were projected on the walls.
Blevins and Lackey danced and laughed with their dates and a group of friends, showing no signs of the trauma they had endured. And that's exactly how it should be, said Trenton city Mayor Barton Harris, whose high school senior daughter was at the prom.
"It's so important to still hold events like this, even when it's tough," he said. "People need normalcy."