BY THE NUMBERS
121: Businesses damaged in Ringgold from April 27 tornadoes
30: Businesses destroyed from April 27 storms
$45.6 million: Value of businesses damaged in the storm
Source: Ringgold code enforcement
RINGGOLD, Ga. — In the center of the destruction in downtown Ringgold, Jenni Sweet’s hair salon displays a handwritten sign to let customers know she is open for business.
From the street, the Hair Tamer parking lot looks like a junkyard. Heaps of metal and drywall block the edge of her entrance, and a large orange X spray-painted onto the white panel of her building greets guests as they walk to the entrance.
Sweet, with the help of family members and employees, spent the first six days after the April 27 tornado patching the roof and picking up the shards of glass from the broken windows to reopen quickly.
She’s one of only a few business people who have been able to pick up the pieces and reopen, with many estimating months, not weeks before they’ll open the doors to customers.
“Not only could we have lost money, but we could have lost clients,” Sweet said. “I definitely have competition around, and I’ve got to stay on my feet.”
More than 121 businesses were damaged and at least 30 were destroyed in Ringgold during the April 27 storms, according to the city. Many owners have had to improvise to stay afloat as they wait for insurance companies to cut them a check or for the city to clear away debris.
Downtown Ringgold is still a wreck in many places, with big blue containers holding what remains of millions of dollars in destroyed inventory and structures.
The damaged businesses are worth about $45.6 million, according to Thomas Catlett, Ringgold code enforcement officer, though calculating the cost of repair is “an ongoing process,” he said.
It’s a moving target, as some businesses bulldoze their lots to the foundation while others, like the Kangaroo on Old Alabama Road, put up temporary trailers.
A sign hanging on the security fence surrounding the destroyed McDonald’s promises the restaurant will return in the fall. Other buildings show no signs of life, while still others are covered with workers and machines busy setting Ringgold’s broken bones.
“This is a conservative estimate, because there are buildings that are heavily damaged but an inspector hasn’t had a chance to declare it as such,” Catlett said. “It’s just going to take time.”
Time wasn’t a luxury that Robert Lollar had when he saw the devastated parking lot at Walter Jackson Chevrolet on April 29, two days after the storm hit. That was the first time officials allowed Lollar, the dealership’s sales manager, to access the business.
Debris from hundreds of homes and businesses, spun into a frenzy by the twister, had heavily damaged 45 of his new vehicles, while the storm’s onslaught had torn his showroom apart.
“You couldn’t tell whose debris it was, it was just everywhere,” he said.
With help from local and national businesses, he rid himself of the damaged vehicles at a fire sale and quickly replaced them with an unexpected shipment of new cars rerouted by General Motors.
By May 3, Loller had hung a banner from the roof declaring the dealership to be open.
At present, the salesmen jokingly refer to the now-outdoor showroom as “the patio,” where a fire-engine red Chevy Silverado sits gleaming in the sunlight awaiting a buyer.
Over the next four months, Lollar said Ringgold’s venerable dealership would perform a $1 million renovation.
“We’re going to make it bigger, better and nicer,” he said. “The city of Ringgold is open, and Walter Jackson Chevrolet is absolutely open.”
But that’s a perception that not all consumers share. Business owners have seen a decrease in business, even though the police roadblocks and wreckage blocking the road are long gone.
Louisiana store returns favor
The Domino’s on Poplar Springs Road was a complete loss when the tornado tossed a manager’s car into a water valve that broke and promptly filled the store with 6 inches of water.
But rather than give up, employees solicited help from a franchise owner in Louisiana whom they had helped when Hurricane Katrina led to massive losses there.
Their Cajun friends sent a mobile pizza store set up in a trailer, which they erected on the grassy median next to the husk of the old store. A power line runs down to a makeshift pole, and freshly built wood planks keep employees’ feet from getting muddy.
They haven’t received as many calls since the storms, which is a good thing because the trailer doesn’t offer the production capacity of the old structure, but the reduction in orders still is troubling, employees said.
In fact, the decreased business in Ringgold means that even the businesses without any damage are struggling to survive, according to Ringgold Downtown Partners.
Those that have reopened still face the perception that the city is closed, and some consumers may have changed their habits after hearing about the widespread destruction to the city.
“People just aren’t coming down to shop yet,” said Raye Brooks, president of Ringgold Downtown Partners.
Open for business
The business district along Nashville Street past the courthouse where Brooks’ shop, Ringgold Art and Frame Gallery, is located was untouched during the storm, and it reopened along with the rest of the surrounding shops once the public was allowed back in the city.
But many people who normally would stop in Ringgold to visit the shops are avoiding the area altogether, Brooks said. And other times, it’s still hard to tell what’s open from what’s closed.
Quality Cleaners of Ringgold wasn’t heavily damaged, but access to the building was obstructed by debris and the power was out for two weeks, said owner Yun Gravitt.
She reopened as quickly as she could, but noticed a 20 percent decrease in customer traffic, she said.
That could have something to do with the fact that a tornado took out everything on all four sides of her small store, and the “yes we’re open” sign she put up is partially obscured by a container full of rubble, she said.
“I couldn’t have more business because of the debris,” Gravitt said. “I guess I could have more business if everything was clean and nice around my property.
Long-term prospects for her block, however, are a bit gloomy.
“The house next to me, they’re going to totally remove the house, and the other house in front of my shop, they’re not going to be able to put anything there anymore,” she said. “It’s going to be a bare lot.”
Once her $5,000 roof repair job is complete, she plans to dress up the building and send fliers out to neighbors, but “right now it’s a very slow process.”
“It’s going to get better because the city of Ringgold is working hard,” she said, then paused. “It’s got to get better eventually.”
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...