GCPS Teacher's home destroyed by lightning

The Gwinnett County Fire Department responded to the scene of a fire Saturday evening after lightning struck and destroyed the home of a Gwinnett County Public Schools teacher.

Special education teacher Catherine Kelly had just spoken with one of her colleagues to prepare for the upcoming school year and was on the phone when she received another phone call informing her that her home in unincorporated Loganville had been struck by lightning.

At around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Kelly’s neighbors told her they heard a loud “bang,” which shook their home. About 20 minutes later, they saw flames and smoke coming from her house. Kelly arrived home at around 5 p.m. from a Target parking lot where she had been sitting to talk to her mom on the phone.

“I started screaming and yelling in the car,” Kelly said after she received the phone call.

Still in shock by what happened Monday morning, Kelly recalled the incident as she held back tears and choked on her words. Her home was completely destroyed, as was all of her furniture and belongings. Kelly doesn’t have renter’s insurance, she said.

According to the Gwinnett County Fire Department, crews arrived to find a two-story residence on a slab with heavy fire involvement in the attic and throughout the second floor. The first arriving engine company utilized the deck gun to knock down the bulk of the flames.

After darkening down the flames, crews were able to advance two fire attack hose lines into the structure and begin to search for victims. The second floor and attic was heavily damaged by fire and the first floor received smoke and water damage throughout, according to fire officials.

No injuries were reported. Kelly’s pets were found at a neighbor’s house and fire officials said they were doing fine. Kelly is currently staying at a hotel in Conyers using money she received from the American Red Cross until she can find a new place to live.

However, Grace Gonzalez-Davidson, who teaches with Kelly at Lovin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, started a GoFundMe page to help her find a stable home before the start of the school year.

The goal was set at $2,000, but as of Monday evening, close to $7,000 had been raised from other teachers and community members who heard about the incident.

“I know now I’m going to have enough for a down payment to get another place and be able to replace furniture and clothes,” Kelly said. “I have no idea where I’m going yet, but that money will help me with bills until I can find a place to go. I just can’t thank Grace enough for what she’s done.”

Kelly said she hasn’t been able to eat since Saturday. Two days after the incident, what happened to her home finally sank in. But at the time she said all she could think about was her 16-year-old blind diabetic dog and her cat.

“I would have been dead if I had been home, because where I think the lightning hit was my bedroom and that’s where I hang out most of the time with my cat and my dog on my bed,” Kelly said. “When I’m not in the house they usually hang out by the front door, so thank God I wasn’t home because they were at the right place, but I don’t know where they went after.”

She said this is the third time the area around her home has been struck by lightning, but the first time it’s actually caught fire. The first time was in the ’90s when lightning struck a tree behind her porch. A year after the first incident, lightning struck again, but this time it struck her driveway.

“I’m getting a little tired of having lightning come at me,” she said. “It’s not funny anymore.”

Kelly has been a special education teacher for 32 years and started teaching at Lovin Elementary in 2013. She and Gonzalez-Davidson met around 2016. Last year, when Gonzalez-Davidson got a black eye from one of her students and broke her toe, she said Kelly was there for her to offer her support.

“She really helped me find my purpose again,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “I’m just in awe of how teachers and people we don’t know have come together to help. We hope to get her back on her feet before the start of school.”

Kelly said, if nothing else, the incident helped to show the strength of strangers. Her neighbors, for example, who she has only ever really smiled and waved hello to, have been there for her the entire weekend.

“I don’t know them and they don’t know me, but they’ve stepped up and it’s absolutely mind-boggling,” Kelly said. “I feel overwhelmed by the whole fire, but even more so from the love and support that I’m getting from everybody. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I just remember all of that. It’s times like these you find out people are really good. We’re all in this pandemic together. I know these guys are all here with me for this too.”

Gwinnett County firefighters responded to numerous storm-related emergencies late into Sunday afternoon and into the evening as a severe thunderstorm moved swiftly through all portions of Gwinnett County.

To donate to Kelly’s GoFundMe, visit bit.ly/3igQWUE.

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