published Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Tornado devastation around Chattanooga lingers

Homeowner Jeff Ratcliff, right, and Israel Essex remove a garage door from Ratcliff's boat at his Wolftever Drive residence on March 8.
Homeowner Jeff Ratcliff, right, and Israel Essex remove a garage door from Ratcliff's boat at his Wolftever Drive residence on March 8.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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BY THE NUMBERS

FEMA applications and awards from the March 2 tornadoes:

Hamilton: 62 approved applications; $300,817.33 total individual assistance

Bradley: 14 approved applications; $62,863.42 total individual assistance

McMinn: 15 approved applications; $155,082.85 total individual assistance

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Every morning for the last four months, Tonya Ransom has opened her front door to brokenness.

She has had to look at the gouged landscape on the hillside across from her Harrison home where hundreds of scraggly trees are piled haphazardly, still resting where they landed when an EF3 tornado hit March 2.

When she drives along Short Tail Springs Road to the grocery store, she must pass the wreckage of dozens of homes, some untouched since the storm. Many -- including Ransom's -- have blue tarps stretched across the roofs and boards covering gaping holes where windows and doors once were.

"For months I kept opening my door, hoping to see change, hoping to see change, and nothing was happening. This has been my life for the last four months," Ransom said.

But over the last month or so, change has begun in the Harrison community. Cement trucks have barreled up her hill and begun laying foundations for new homes. The air is filled with the sounds of hammers and power saws. Stacks of wood appear where downed trees once clogged yards.

Even as the rebuilding picks up the pace, many locals say they feel as if the storm's devastation -- which claimed no lives but caused more than $25 million in damage in the region -- has faded from the public eye. It's not like the ongoing attention after the tornadoes of April 27, 2011.

"It was kind of a blurp, and it was gone. When [the 2011 tornadoes] happened, you kept hearing about it; you kept seeing photos. But most folks don't know it's still so bad back here, and we have to deal with it every day," said Ransom, a single mother who has struggled to run her fitness business while working on her damaged home.

Donnie Newbille, who just moved back into his rental on Davis Mill Road, said his co-workers never really understood the level of devastation in Harrison until they recently went there to paint a rebuilt house.

"They just keep saying, 'Man, I can't believe it!' over and over," Newbille said. "It was sort of like a bomb went off down here, but if you don't see it, you don't know."

COUNTING THE COST

The Harrison twister took no lives, but it destroyed significantly more homes in Hamilton County than the deadly 2011 outbreak that killed more than 80 people in the region.

Assessments performed by the county showed the March 2 twister destroyed about 90 homes worth a total of $10.6 million. The April 27, 2011, tornadoes destroyed 56 homes in Hamilton County worth a combined $5 million.

The March storms also caused $3 million worth of damage in Bradley County and nearly $2 million worth of damage in McMinn County.

But a larger number of homeowners affected March 2 were covered by insurance than those hit by the previous year's storms, officials from the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency received 91 applications from Hamilton, Bradley and McMinn counties for the March storms and awarded $518,762 in individual assistance. After April 27, 2011, they were flooded with more than 4,200 applications and awarded more than $3 million in those three counties.

"The numbers may show a large difference, but you can't compare disasters just based on numbers," said Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener. "The level of disaster differs for each person affected."

Though media attention and volunteer numbers in Harrison have waned, local service agencies have remained faithful, many residents say. Newbille and others said they were overwhelmed by the labor, supplies and hot meals from volunteer agencies such as the Samaritan Center and the Salvation Army.

"If there's anything good that these back-to-back tornadoes have brought, it's that it has brought all these relief agencies together," said Bill Tittle, Hamilton County chief of emergency management.

Harrison Bay State Park officials say steady cleanup efforts in the park have ensured that they still will have a busy summer as boating season revs up.

"The number of visitors has not been impacted whatsoever," said Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees all state parks.

Island Cove Marina, which suffered a $6 million loss when the winds destroyed 300 boats and four large docks, has managed to stay financially afloat for the boating season.

"Our customers have been very loyal," general manager Terry Kelley said.

He said the marina is rebuilding its docks.

"We already have most of our new dock space spoken for, even though it's not done. And many folks who lost boats in the storms bought new ones from us."

Before marina workers could begin rebuilding, they had to fish tons of debris from the lake bed, relying on cranes and sonar equipment to reach the remains of docks and boats.

"There was more to clean up than you can imagine," said Kelley. "But you just have to do it. Little by little."

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