ADEL, Georgia (CNN) — It was about 4 a.m. Sunday when the tornado warning blared from Yesenia Mondragon’s mobile phone. Her husband told her to grab their daughter, 1-year-old Layla, and get into the bathtub.
“He got right in, too, with us,” she told CNN. “You could hear the wind, the whistles, the noise.”
The 24-year-old mother lived in Sunshine Acres, a rural mobile home park about 3 miles southeast of Adel, Georgia, a short drive from Valdosta and the Florida state line. The locally owned mobile home park, which housed several families, is one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by a path of dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes that struck across south Georgia and north Florida this weekend.
Already, the death toll there, seven, accounts for almost half the state’s total of 15, authorities say. Of the 100 or so mobile homes in Sunshine Acres and the surrounding area, 15 were leveled in the storms, Adel Mayor Buddy Duke said.
Bits of wood and other debris are scattered across the park, Duke said, explaining that it appears as if someone placed bombs in some of the mobile homes.
“There were several small children that were found under debris,” he said.
He’d heard that one family with four small children lost the family’s father and an aunt.
Delores Bright, 66, a lifelong resident of Adel and pastor at a nearby church in Lakeland, knows many of the children in Sunshine Acres. Two of her nephews live there. They’re safe, she said.
She estimates that she knows about 20 children through a babysitting service she established in the park in 2003.
“I could’ve lost my children. My heart goes out to the families,” she said.
She said Sunshine Acres was home to so many people and it doesn’t feel the same anymore. She’s telling residents, “Hold your heads up. Keep looking to God.”
Residents describe a terrifying scene as the twister ripped through Sunshine Acres. AJ Miley told CNN affiliate WSB she heard people screaming, “Help me. Help me.”
Devocheo Williams recalled seeing a neighbor and a mobile home tossed through the air, he told the station.
“All I saw was a little girl flown up and thrown in a ditch. Three seconds later, the trailer got picked up off the ground and landed on top of the mother and son,” Williams said.
As authorities prepared to continue a search-and-rescue operation in the mobile home park Monday, Mondragon wondered what she and her family would do.
Both her home and her sister-in-law’s home were too unstable to provide safe shelter, so they fled to the home of Patricia McGee, the mother of the sister-in-law’s boyfriend.
“People were screaming,” McGee said. “I will never forget.”
Mondragon doesn’t know many of her neighbors, but her husband, Earnest Williams, does. Neighbors were concerned about each other and trying to help, even visiting their displaced neighbors at a local Days Inn to keep each other company, she said.
A waitress at a Mexican restaurant, Mondragon and Williams “pretty much live paycheck to paycheck,” Mondragon said.
They had been saving money to move into a new home, but now they will have to spend a lot of that money on recovery. The only items they had time to grab before fleeing their mobile home were Layla’s diapers and baby wipes, she said. They had to buy the 1-year-old new clothes once it was safe to head into town, she said.
Soon, they’ll have to leave the hotel and find a new place to live. Mondragon doesn’t know where that will be but suspects she and her extended family will “have to find a way to make it, and just room all together.”
If there is one takeaway from the horrific experience, it’s that she’s learned never to take a tornado warning lightly.
“I’ll never take for granted an alarm saying that there’s a tornado warning,” she said. “You know they tell you to evacuate. … Now I know you can’t take it for granted.”