published Friday, April 27th, 2012

Hope in the face of calamity

Residents of this region of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama watched with mounting anxiety, then fear, then terror as a record-smashing outbreak of tornadoes enveloped portions of the Southeast one year ago today.

Local meteorologists worked without ceasing to keep viewers advised as best they could about when and where the next twister was likely to hit. They undoubtedly saved lives.

But the scope of the disaster was so great that casualties were inevitable. In our region alone, 81 lives were lost, and many more people were injured. The Apison area and Ringgold, Ga., particularly were hit hard.

Then there was the eye-popping property damage, which has generated about $3 billion worth of insurance payouts in Alabama, $2 billion in Tennessee and more than $430 million in Georgia, according to reports. And that doesn't include uninsured losses for which there may never be a full accounting.

If that were the end of the story, the events of April 27, 2011, would be an unmitigated tragedy.

But the people of our region and many good Samaritans from outside the region saw the tornadoes not as a reason for despair but as a call to action.

It was rapidly apparent that the extent of the destruction was such that even with their most valiant efforts, emergency responders would not immediately be able to reach everyone who was affected. And so, even as tornadoes still were ravaging some areas, neighbors began helping devastated neighbors. That surely saved more lives in the immediate aftermath of the storms.

And in the coming days, a virtual army of local, regional and national volunteers would mobilize to begin the process of digging out from under the rubble, helping the displaced and consoling those who had lost loved ones. Among their other roles, churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army provided thousands of meals, drinking water and countless other necessities to volunteers and survivors. They also prayed and wept with the victims of the storms.

What is perhaps most remarkable, though, is that significant relief efforts continue today. Often after a catastrophe, there is an initial but all-too-brief burst of compassion and assistance. Yet a year after the April 27 tornadoes, volunteers continue rebuilding or repairing homes for the uninsured and removing debris such as downed trees.

That highlights one of the benefits of living in the Chattanooga region: the willingness of so many residents to help others in need, as well as a general can-do spirit. A couple of weeks after last year's disaster, the owner of a heavily damaged restaurant in devastated Ringgold was undaunted.

"When we do rebuild, we're going to build it back bigger and better," she told the Times Free Press. "We've got to get our town back."

The ample evidence that a similar attitude prevails not only in Ringgold but throughout the area is inspiring. It shows that the tornadoes of one year ago may have caused us pain and in some cases unspeakable sorrow. But they did not break us.

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