published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Storm devastation launches monumental recovery

Calvin Parris examines the marble floor and staircase he built while walking through what used to be his two-story 3,200-square-foot residence off Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga., before last year's EF4 tornado demolished it.
Calvin Parris examines the marble floor and staircase he built while walking through what used to be his two-story 3,200-square-foot residence off Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga., before last year's EF4 tornado demolished it.
Photo by Dan Henry.
The storms, rebuilding and recollections

A year ago, Norma Parris crawled out of a bathroom under the spiral staircase of her Ringgold home.

Rain poured from black night above her, through the drywall and twisted two-by-fours.

"I really couldn't believe most of my house was gone," Parris said, remembering that night. "Everything we had worked for all our lives, and in a few seconds it's gone."

The task of picking up the pieces seemed monumental -- Norma and her husband, Calvin, had built their two-story dream brick home in 1994. Calvin had carefully fashioned the spiral staircase following a blueprint he designed.

Now a year later, the Parrises are back in their home. They saved the staircase and built an exact replica of the home around it.

"I think it's awesome how far we've come in such a short amount of time," Norma said.

Chattanooga rarely has seen a natural disaster of such magnitude, according to LaVonne Jolley, the journal editor for the Chattanooga area Historical Association. Her family's home in Lookout Valley, where Jolley grew up, was damaged as well.

Maybe the early floods -- before the area's dams were built -- but not much else approaches the level of devastation seen last April 27, Jolley said.

"People will always talk about where they were that day -- they may not remember the exact date, but they'll always remember the damage," she said.

Assistance

The April 27 storms were among the costliest natural disasters on record, with billions of dollars in damage across the six-state region that was affected. Money for recovery has come primarily from three sources -- insurers, federal aid and donations made to dozens of nonprofit agencies and private individuals.

Insurers paid out about $3 billion in Alabama, $2 billion in Tennessee and $435 million in Georgia. Local figures from the tri-state area are not available.

Federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration, provided more than a billion dollars for rebuilding and recovery efforts.

In the Chattanooga area, the two agencies paid about $74 million to individuals and government agencies.

Individuals in the same tri-state area got almost $16 million in grants to pay for temporary housing, make repairs, replace property and rebuild homes. Individuals in DeKalb County, Ala., received the most funding, with $4.8 million in grant assistance.

Mary Hudak, spokeswoman for FEMA, said each disaster is different, so it is impossible to quantify the April 27 storms in comparison to Hurricane Katrina or other recent disasters.

"In any disaster, it's the worst to those that are affected," Hudak said.

Most of the FEMA assistance claims have been completed, processed and reviewed, Hudak said.

While the outpouring of donations and support after the storms were substantial, donations to nonprofits remain the smallest piece of the rebuilding and recovery pie.

It is not possible to determine how much was given in donations, but rough accounting shows it was less than $10 million in the tri-state area. Thousands of volunteers assisted in clean-up and ongoing rebuilding projects.

Although the Salvation Army raised only about $300,000 in local donations designated for tornado recovery, the organization has pledged to spend up to $1.5 million in the greater Chattanooga area, according to spokeswoman Kimberly George.

So far the organization has spent about $700,000 and has reserved an additional $500,000 for ongoing projects.

"The Salvation Army mobilized and utilized the greatest deployment of resources since [Hurricane] Katrina," George said. "That shows how massive the storms were."

Rebuilding

  • photo
    Calvin Parris stand in his rebuilt home Thursday off of Cherokee Valley Road next to the staircase that was all that remained after his home was demolished by last year's Ringgold, Ga., tornado. Calvin's wife, Norma, survived the storm by sheltering in a bathroom located underneath the staircase which is why they decided to rebuild the house exactly as it was.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

In less than 24 hours, the tornadoes wiped out communities in wide swaths. About 1,000 homes were blown to smithereens, with little left but twisted splinters and concrete foundations. Thousands more were seriously damaged.

A year ago, rebuilding seemed overwhelming, but as it turns out, a lot can happen in 365 days.

From the small communities of Henagar and Ider, Ala., to Ringgold, Ga., to Cleveland, Tenn., hundreds of families are in new homes, while others are putting finishing touches on houses.

"What a blessing it is to see lives going back to normal and people back in their homes," said Chandra Peek, whose husband pastors Higdon Baptist Church in Jackson County.

Peek drove through the Shiloh community in the first days after the storm and remembers not being able to tell where she was. All the familiar landmarks had been wiped out.

On Sunday, she drove through the same area, amazed at the change one year had made.

"It doesn't feel like a year," she said. "There is heartache to see what is left and to know it will never be the same in our lifetime. But people are doing a lot better."

In Trenton, Ga., and in some other communities, some homes remain untouched, as owners struggle with decisions about what to do.

Capt. David Duvall, with the Dade County Sheriff's Department and treasurer for the county's recovery group, said his group has been overwhelmed by how the community and volunteers have pulled together to rebuild their small community.

By the end of May, the last homes the group is working on should be completed, he said.

"I feel like we've done very well," Duvall said.

Planning for the future

Despite the progress made in the last year, tri-state area residents realize they have years of rebuilding and recovery ahead.

Anthony Clifton, director of the Emergency Management Agency in DeKalb County, said he expects another four years of hard work. In the meantime, all his efforts are devoted to improving the county's resources and being better prepared for the next storm.

"All our planning was thrown out the window. We had to start over," Clifton said. "This was an impossible scenario to plan for -- now this has to be our baseline."

Clifton said hundreds of tornado shelters have been put in the community and efforts are under way to build several safe rooms. The county has added additional warning sirens, as well.

"It's really changed people's perceptions of storms. Their anxiety levels are through the roof. But it has also made us more vigilant and better prepared," he said.

Different agencies, including the Salvation Army, have learned a lot about working together.

Groups now realize what services each offers and are able to provide more cohesive help to people, George said.

"We live in such a generous community," she said. "Regardless of class or income or where we live, everybody just rolls up their sleeves and gets to work until there is no longer a need."

about Mariann Martin...

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, ...

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