For months, Jojo Macatiag pinched pennies and squirreled away dollars for the trip of a lifetime — three months off work to travel through Canada and Alaska.
It was going to be his final fling before the then-26-year-old came back to Southeast Tennessee to find a career job and settle down.
He had dreamed of that day. Planned the adventure. Last April he packed his 1997 Honda Civic, mapped the route and headed out.
He was in Chicago, filling out paperwork and getting his picture taken for his passport, when the first call came — Apison had been hit by a bad storm.
The second, third and fourth calls were more frantic. Macatiag’s 78-year-old stepdad was missing. The man’s house and business were destroyed, blown to smithereens and scattered to the winds at the corner of Apison Pike and Clonts Road.
This was a man Macatiag was not close to and barely liked. He had been part of a fractured and difficult childhood, which ended with Macatiag living at the Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter. As an adult, Macatiag scarcely spoke to him.
But when the calls came from friends, Macatiag knew what he would do. Early in the morning on April 28, he began the long drive back to Apison.
“This was a 78-year-old man with two bad knees,” Macatiag said. “You know that God would still help him no matter what. We are here to be God’s hands and feet.”
At that crossroads in his life, as he watched the mile markers tick back toward Tennessee, Macatiag’s world was about to turn upside-down -- filled with 20-hour workdays, spreadsheets, people who had lost everything and volunteers from nearly every state in the nation.
Within weeks, he and Doug Walter — another Apison native who jokes that God sent the tornadoes to give him a purpose in life — organized a loose-knit network of contacts and volunteers who set to work cleaning up their corner of Apison and rebuilding the lives that had been twisted into despair and destruction by the wind.
In the last year, Macatiag learned every building code in the book. He can recite lists of permits needed to build a house. He can run a chain saw and drive heavy equipment.
But most of all, the last year has strengthened his faith in God.
The storms of April 27 showed him there are still good people in the world.
“Everything that had happened to me — you see how horrible the world is,” Macatiag said. “Then you see the good people all over the country coming to help people they never even met. Those are the little moments of love that keeps it worthwhile.”
Macatiag still remembers the day he decided to commit his life to helping rebuild in Apison.
It was about two weeks after the tornado. He had spent days sifting through his stepfather’s belongings, helped him salvage equipment he used in his signmaking business.
Most people had found a temporary place to live. Other volunteers slowly were packing their bags and leaving. Macatiag thought about going, too.
Instead, he cleared the spot where his stepdad’s house had been.
Walter showed up to help. He found a large vinyl sign in the debris and hung it between two posts. “OPEN HOUSE,” it said in big letters. Only there were no houses, just open spaces filled with battered trees.
Some of the first response agencies left. The Federal Emergency Management Agency handed out checks to some of the people who had lost everything. But to the uninsured, it would never be enough to rebuild.
Then people came to offer help. Soon Macatiag and Walter were telling volunteers how to find them. Look for the sign, they said.
Soon, Macatiag, Walter and their crews became known as the Open House Volunteers. The pair organized those who turned out to help, cooked meals and worked on cleanups, repairs and rebuilds. A makeshift village of tents sprang up at the corner of Apison Pike and Clonts Road.
Throughout the day, Macatiag was a whirlwind of activity. Dressed in his volunteer firefighter uniform — dark blue cargo pants and a dark blue T-shirt — he herded college kids, marshaled supplies and mapped spreadsheets.
His phone rang constantly. Many nights he would sleep only a few hours. His patience and calm in any situation amazed his friends; no matter what happened, he always kept his smile.
Sometimes he would fall asleep on a job site. His fellow volunteers joke about the time they found him fast asleep atop a half-built wall.
He used the money he had saved for the Alaska trip to pay his bills and buy supplies for rebuilding projects.
Macatiag is quick to point out that every volunteer helped change lives in Apison. He rarely talks about his own involvement and insists others helped shoulder the task of rebuilding.
Walter, who reluctantly had taken disability leave April 1 from his job at Southern Adventist University after an injury, was always there.
His bum shoulder didn’t keep him from making phone calls, Walter said. Some days he planted flowers or sifted through debris. He found treasured coin collections and family photos.
“We had a project we believed in,” Walter said.
But there were dark days, too. Macatiag’s relationship with his stepdad never improved. They finished his house; now they rarely talk.
A reporter stopped by Macatiag’s stepfather’s new house several times, but efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Macatiag lost friends in the storm — Holly Readus, a close friend and high school classmate, died on Cherokee Valley Road and he didn’t know about it until after her funeral.
He broke up with his girlfriend of four-plus years last summer.
As he recounted the low moments, his brown eyes showed the pain. It was one of those rare moments when he sits still.
At night, when all the volunteers went home, Macatiag stayed to guard tools and building supplies from looters. It was lonely, he said. The trees that were still standing, damaged by the storm, creaked in the wind.
“You see all these miracles during the day, but at night there was no one to share them with,” he said.
He stayed for 225 days, leaving for the first time at Thanksgiving.
Other volunteers urged him to take some time off, so he went on a trip for several weeks after Christmas. When he came back, some people seemed unhappy that he had left; projects had stalled. The constant adrenaline rush of the summer was gone.
“I felt like I failed,” he said.
He became depressed and ill. He struggled, wondering what was next in his life.
Good friends like Kenneth Britt have helped, he said. On Wednesday, Britt joked with Macatiag as the two prepared to cut trees on a property in Harrison where the March tornado hit. Britt’s wife brought Macatiag a chai tea from Starbucks and hugged him.
“I’m proud to know him,” Kenneth Britt said. “He puts everybody else first; I’ve never met anyone like him.”
Work is wrapping up in the Apison area. Volunteers from around the country have completed nearly a dozen houses. Most of the people are back in their homes.
Robert Mills’ rebuilt home is just across the corner from Macatiag’s stepdad. Volunteers helped build the brown-sided, one-story house and clean up the area, he said.
“There were all kinds of volunteers here, but Jojo just sort of took over,” Mills said. “If it wouldn’t have been for Jojo, this area wouldn’t be where it is now.”
In another month, Open House Volunteers expects to have most of the major projects completed. Back to a sort of normal.
“When you start seeing the homes coming back after it all looked so hopeless — through God you can move mountains,” Macatiag said. “Apison was mountains.”
He isn’t sure what will happen next. He would like to find a job that includes helping in disaster recovery. No matter what he does, he will always help with the next disaster, he said.
“If you take care of the physical needs, the spiritual needs will follow,” he said. “Even if it is only one person who was helped, whose life was changed, it’s worth it.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...