President Barack Obama’s disaster declaration for Tennessee came through Sunday night, bringing with it a train of federal recovery programs that will help storm-shattered communities in Southeast Tennessee recover.
Neighboring Georgia and Alabama already had received presidential disaster declarations in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that ravaged the South on Wednesday and killed around 350 people.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has disaster assistance centers up and running in Rainsville, Ala., where 32 people have died. Centers will open this week in Catoosa and Walker counties in Georgia, officials there said.
Area electric utilities were reporting progress in restoring power: EPB reported 22,000 customers without power in its service area; Cleveland Utilities had 3,224; Volunteer Energy still had about 2,000 to hook up and North Georgia Electric Membership Cooperative had only about 400 who weren’t back on the grid.
“Everybody’s really anxious to getting everyone back on,” said EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton.
On top of trying to provide assistance, workers are scrambling to secure damaged homes and businesses in preparation for storms expected to hit tonight and dump an inch of rain on the region Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn.
In Hamilton County, the storm fatality count officially was changed from nine to 11 after a Chattanooga couple died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator they were using at their home on Fox Drive, police said.
But Hamilton County schools are back in session today on a one-hour delay.
Because school is back in session, Hamilton County’s tornado disaster relief center will move to the old Apison Pike Elementary School at 11116 Old East Brainerd Road.
Meanwhile, neighbors are helping neighbors in any way they can, hauling debris, cooking meals, washing clothes and handing out supplies.
Like most high school seniors, Amanda Lann went to prom Saturday night. But that was after five hours of relief work in Ringgold earlier that day and more than 24 hours of work over the previous two.
Sunday, she was back at Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Ringgold, which is among dozens of local churches and organizations that have mobilized grassroots relief efforts.
“There are so many people who need help,” said Lann, 17, who attends Heritage High School. “I knew I was called to help them.”
The church is one of three relief and distribution centers in the county.
“We recognize we were spared for a reason and that means we’re in a better position to help people,” said senior pastor Chris Petty.
Volunteers have gone door to door asking people what kind of help they’re looking for.
One of the people they reached was Bill Nelson, who says it will take about six months to repair what a tornado took about six seconds to destroy at his home.
“It’s been overwhelming, the generosity of people. People just keep coming up and asking what can they do,” Nelson said.
The church’s gym holds towers of bottled water and stacks of diapers, nonperishable food and hygiene items for victims of the storm. On white boards are lists of job sites, work opportunities and numbers for organizations like the Red Cross.
The church has plenty of experience working in disaster zones. For six years it has sent groups to Waveland, Miss., to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup.
Lann had made the trip, but it still didn’t prepare her for the devastation she saw in her own hometown Thursday morning.
“I couldn’t believe it. You know, I just never would have thought this sort of thing could have happened in Ringgold.”
Now, church members from Waveland are calling Poplar Springs Baptist asking how they can help, church workers said.
LOOTERS AND GAWKERS
Work crews and law enforcement say their work continues to be frustrated by sightseers and looters.
Though Ringgold originally was opened Sunday morning to residents, business owners and contractors, it was closed again that afternoon after officials said the city became so crowded with onlookers that public works vehicles and volunteers couldn’t do their work.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, and workers need to be able to move about freely,” saidMaj.Gary Sisk with the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office.
Checkpoints are still up on many roads leading to severely damaged Apison neighborhoods, according to Hamilton County Emergency Services spokeswoman Amy Maxwell.
Law enforcement across the region also is clamping down on looting. Two adults and two juveniles were charged with stealing beer, other beverages and a backback-style sprayer from one Bradley County store.
Larry Dean Gibson Jr., 22, and Dustin M. Lemons, 23, both were charged with theft under $500, and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The juveniles, both 17, were taken to the county juvenile detention unit. The sheriff’s office said that, under state law, judges may double penalties during declared emergencies.
IN THE REGION
Elsewhere in the storm-hit South, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured hard-hit neighborhoods of Alabama and Mississippi on Sunday to offer condolences and pledge support for local residents and emergency workers.
She pledged continued federal government support for Alabama, Mississippi and several other states that were hit hard by the tornadoes.
“This is not going to be a quick comeback or an immediate [recovery] but it will be, in my view, a complete one,” she said in Smithville, Miss., where chain saws roared in the background.