As search-and-rescue teams pulled the 78th lifeless body from the rubble of homes and businesses around the tri-state region, meteorologist Tim Troutman was tracking the single, strong EF4 tornado that killed 17 of them.
The tornado, packing 190-mph winds, began its track of death and destruction near Ringgold, Ga., about 8 p.m. Wednesday. There it claimed at least eight lives.
Then the twister crossed the Tennessee-Georgia border and zeroed in on Apison, where it took at least eight more lives.
In the darkness, the devil wind moved into Bradley County, claiming another nine people.
“The tornado — at one point 800 yards wide — was on the ground continuously for about 35 miles,” said Troutman, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Morristown, Tenn., office.
As local residents grieve over lost friends and family, obliterated or damaged homes, lack of power and dwindling water supplies, numbers are showing that the Chattanooga region accounts for almost a fourth of the nation’s 290 known tornado deaths of the day.
The sobering numbers aren’t so surprising when compared to Troutman’s still-ongoing survey maps. He is checking seven reported tornado tracks in Hamilton County alone and 20 reported twisters in the region. Five storms hit Bradley County.
Experts say the storms that strafed the Southeast on Wednesday set a new record, dethroning the Super Outbreak of April 1974, when 148 twisters touched down in 13 states, killed 330 people and injured 5,484.
“This whole event is really unprecedented, off the charts. It’s very rare that one county would have three tornadoes in one day,” said Lans Rothfusz, a National Weather Service meteorologist from Georgia’s Peachtree City, as he surveyed the paths of Dade County’s three reported twisters Thursday. He confirmed them as two EF1s and an EF3.
After the tornado struck Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, residents say the normally silent valley echoed with the screams of people crying for help.
Aerial view on Tennessee Valley destructionWatch an aerial video of destruction from severe weather that struck the Tennessee Valley Wednesday.
“It was hard to tell who was where,” said George Widmann, who lives on a ridge overlooking Cherokee Valley.
Widmann, whose house was unscathed, said he stayed out all night, trying to pull neighbors from their homes or helping look for their loved ones.
Ringgold Fire Chief Chuck Nichols said it still will be “days” before the city is stable.
Most of the afternoon Thursday, search teams sprayed orange paint on doors of rooms or buildings that had been searched. By 4 p.m. Thursday, Catoosa County Manager Mike Helton said 70 percent of the roads around Ringgold had at least one lane open, and 99 percent of the rooms had been searched.
At the Days Inn, metal siding was wrapped around telephone poles like gum wrappers, and a Volkswagen Passat was tossed unto the sidewalk at the front door. The top half of the 80-foot Hardee’s sign stuck up from the crumpled restaurant like the handle of an ax stuck in a log.
Metal signs marking businesses and streets were bent 90 degrees at the bottom like broken cornstalks.
Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers estimated that half of Ringgold’s commercial zone and a quarter of the residential area had been damaged.
THE PRACTICAL PROBLEMS
As of Thursday afternoon, 76,000 EPB power customers remained in the dark, according to utility President Harold DePriest.
“Because of the widespread nature of the damage, it’s more difficult for us to get crews,” he said.
Officials said 95 percent of Dade County still has no power and about 3,000 customers of the North Georgia Electric Membership Cooperative are still off-line.
Aerial view of Ringgold devastationWatch raw aerial video footage of severe weather that hit Ringgold, Ga., Wednesday.
Virtually no one in DeKalb County, Ala., has power, as TVA power supply lines in Alabama were destroyed.
In the mountain town of Mentone, which received little direct storm damage, having no power also meant having no water.
Brian Moon, system manager with the Mentone Water Board, said he is seeking a generator to pump water to those homes.
On Thursday, politicians arrived in helicopters for a look-see.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal stopped by Ringgold just before lunchtime.
“It’s pretty obvious even from the ground that this was a devastating tornado,” he said. “Nature is a powerful force, and we saw that yesterday.”
Across the state line, Gov. Bill Haslam took in a bird’s-eye view of Bradley and Hamilton counties.
Both governors promised to seek President Barack Obama’s help of federal assistance.
Many residents aren’t waiting.
In Chattanooga, Bradley Ashburn and Briana Mathews, two Whitwell, Tenn., residents, could find no place to sit at Blood Assurance on Thursday afternoon as they waited more than an hour to give blood.
“It makes me feel like I’’m helping out since I can’t go out and help rescue people,” Mathews said.
In Apison, where many storm victims were still missing and others had to pick through the remains of their homes, 250 volunteers swarmed Apison Elementary School on Thursday morning — armed with chain saws, axes and shovels.
Video: Firsthand view of Cherokee Valley RoadTimes Free Press reporter Lindsey Young, a resident of North Georgia, drove through the Cherokee Valley Road area of Ringgold, Ga., for a firsthand view of the destruction cause by Wednesday's severe weather.
Most had weathered Wednesday’s tornadoes and now worried about their neighbors.
“We had to get out here,” said volunteer Larry Engebretson, who came with his wife to volunteer.
His Apison home was untouched, but he nodded to two demolished houses farther down McGee Road.
“Some folks lost absolutely everything. We can’t fix everything, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Staff writers Ellis Smith, Stephen Hargis, Dan Whisenhunt, Randall Higgins, Andy Johns, Joy Lukachick, Mariann Martin, Ben Benton, Beth Burger and Joan Garrett contributed to this story.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...
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