FULL TORNADO COVERAGE
RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Nine months after a tornado tore through Ringgold, a jaunty advertising banner announces the rebirth of the former Hasty Car Wash near the storm-slammed intersection of Interstate 75 and Alabama Highway.
"Mr. Twisters Car Wash: Our service will blow you away," it reads.
"It was my daughter's idea," said Jill Bellew, co-owner of the car wash with husband Gary. Fourteen-year-old Alana coined the new name and slogan, she said.
"It's been quite a task to get it rebuilt. We weren't insured for that kind of situation," said Bellew. "We just didn't expect a tornado."
Has she got tornado insurance now? "Oh, definitely."
Areas hard-hit by the April 27 tornadoes are a study in contrasts as the storm's first anniversary approaches. Signs of rebirth mingle with disturbing images of the storm's awesome force.
In Ringgold, fast-food restaurants and other businesses have reopened at I-75 and Alabama Highway. But a half dozen metal "skyscraper" advertising towers stand bereft of billboards, while a former Krystal sits empty, as do gas stations on both sides of I-75.
Another business near the interchange has reopened in a spruced-up space. For months, H&L Cleaners had set up shop inside a trailer parked in front of its storm-damaged space. But on Dec. 24, H&L moved back into its permanent building.
"We didn't actually lose many customers," said Manager Norma Espitia. "Everybody's coming back. We're glad to be back."
But the pain of the storm still lingers, and not just in damaged buildings.
The Ringgold City Council recently voted to install a marker on the one-year anniversary of the tornadoes at the Little General Children's Park. It will list the eight Ringgold residents who died in the storm and will feature photos of the wreckage and the community's response. The 3-foot-wide metal marker will resemble one in front of City Hall that details Civil War actions at Ringgold.
"This was such a monumental event that'll be a cutting point. We'll remember before and after," said City Councilman Randall Franks, who proposed the memorial.
MORE TO GO
Not everything's back in business at the I-75 interchange. A plan by the state Department of Transportation to widen Alabama Highway at the interchange reportedly has stymied reopening of businesses closest to I-75.
Motels at the interchange haven't yet gotten back on their feet. Five were in business when the tornadoes hit, but only the Holiday Inn Express, which didn't suffer storm damage, remains open.
Remodeling work is under way at the Super 8 Motel, which is one of three motels owned by Naren Patel. His former Days Inn now is just a slab of concrete between the McDonald's and Waffle House. Patel has said he still hopes to reopen his Quality Inn, located behind McDonald's.
"He's studying now whether he can put the roof back on that," said Catoosa County Attorney Clifton M. Patty Jr.
On one side of I-75, twisted metal framing protrudes from the Baymont Inn & Suites and a pile of carpeting and an overturned toilet block the driveway. The motel is owned by Ravindra Gajjar.
In November, a city judge ordered that Gajjar tear down his motel, overriding claims by Gajjar's insurance company that the structure was sound. So far, though, the building still stands.
The county and the city have taken a financial hit while businesses were closed, Patty said.
"That was a pretty busy interchange when the motels were up and running," he said. "That's a substantial loss of sales tax we've had."
INSURANCE RUNS OUT
But in the country, thousands of fallen trees show where the tornadoes scoured neighborhoods such as Cherokee Valley Road, where the eight people died.
Despite all the fallen trees, demand for tree removal has abated, said Faye Raby, whose husband Ron Raby has run a tree service business since 1978 in Ringgold.
"We were extremely, extremely busy," she said. "It was good there for a while, but it has slowed down."
Homeowners have spent their insurance money and with "no insurance ... it's just been tough for people," she said.
Despite the storm's devastation, rebuilding helped bring Ringgold together, said Franks.
"The experience ... solidified the community," he said. "I think new bonds and many new friendships were cemented. It took working together to make it through."
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.