Don Benton stared across the Savannah Bay from his home that no longer had walls.
The 78-year-old stood near his kitchen, where the fridge was tilted on its side with the door ajar. His study still had books on the shelf but rubble for a floor. Instead of a roof he had open cloudy skies above.
A retired Navy lieutenant commander and fighter pilot, he put photo albums, insurance papers, tax forms and a model airplane in a small pile.
His was one of the first communities to be raked by storms and tornadoes Friday in the second fierce outbreak of tornadoes to this region in less than a year.
The storms were part of a massive system that spun more than 20 suspected tornadoes throughout Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama on Friday.
As of 9 p.m., the National Weather Service had received at least seven reports of tornado sightings or damage locally. Across the entire outbreak area, meteorologists tallied 88 unconfirmed reports of tornadoes.
In the Chattanooga region, hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed and at least 17 people were injured. Statewide, 29 injuries were reported.
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials said late Friday they had unconfirmed reports of tornadoes in eight counties: Bledsoe, Bradley, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Polk, McMinn and Monroe. From 9:25 a.m. to 7 p.m., 75 tornado warnings were issued statewide, TEMA said.
In Hamilton County, at least 20 homes were destroyed, completely taken off their foundations, in the Harrison Bay area on Short Tail Springs and Wolftever roads and in the Ooltewah area, said Amy Maxwell, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Emergency Services.
In Bradley County, three houses were destroyed and 42 were damaged, according to the Bradley County Emergency Operations Center. Bradley County officials estimate damage at $1.35 million. At the peak of the storm, Cleveland Utilities reported 2,140 customers without power and Volunteer Energy reported 8,000 customers without power.
Two Bradley residents were rescued after being trapped in their homes, according to the county’s emergency management agency.
One hard-hit area was at Freewill Road and Candies Lane, the same area devastated by the April 27 tornadoes last year, authorities said. There also was widespread damage to vehicles in Cleveland State Community College parking lots because of downed trees and flying metal debris.
Late Friday, Hamilton County emergency personnel were still going door to door to determine if there were more injuries and property damage.
“This isn’t new for us,” Maxwell said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
At 5 p.m., hours before the last of the storms swept through, Hamilton County hospitals had treated 15 injured storm victims, including one child. No deaths had been reported.
Before a second and third wave of storms swept through, hospital workers and emergency management personnel were scrambling.
By 2 p.m., Erlanger hospital had begun treating several adults with tornado-related injuries. Two helicopters were sent to retrieve the critically injured, hospital spokeswoman Susan Sawyer said.
By 4 p.m., about 30 people, including County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, were stationed at the Hamilton County 911 center on Amnicola Highway, fielding calls and sending warnings as they came.
Littlefield, who seemed shaken up when he arrived at the control center, called the day a “deja vu moment.”
“History is repeating itself,” he said. “We learned last time never to think it’s over.”
As another storm cell approached near 7 p.m., about 79 EPB crews were working to restore power to about 3,600 homes and businesses in Lookout Valley, Harrison, Ooltewah, Highway 58, the Hamilton Place area, Red Bank, Moccasin Bend, Nickajack and Haletown communities.
Interstate 24 at Browns Ferry Road was completely blocked by fallen power lines. Additional power crews are traveling in from Nashville, Mississippi and Alabama, EPB spokeswoman Deborah Dwyer said.
Some residents, like J.C and Rebecca Goins, found those downed power lines a bit too close for comfort.
Dark, ominous clouds surprised the couple as they drove from a medical appointment toward their home across the bridge on Snow Hill Road.
“Water was coming off the lake. Everything just went black and hit us from all directions,” Rebecca said, still picking shards of glass from her hair after the driver’s-side window of their Jeep Liberty blew out while they were inside.
Trees fell across the vehicle and pinned them for more than an hour before volunteers were able to cut the limbs away with chain saws.
The Jeep’s engine continued to run while they sat just a few feet from a downed power line.
“The Lord was with us. That is for sure,” she said.
Jim Hood knew his wife, Jennie, was at home when the storm hit. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t reach her.
He rushed toward their Short Tail Springs Road home. He had to know if she was OK.
But a sheriff’s deputy stopped him and threatened to arrest Hood if he tried to get into the hard-hit area.
It was an order Hood was not about to follow.
“I was going to come in,” he said quietly.
He drove into a nearby subdivision, parked his vehicle and struck out across the woods and hills. Trees blocked his every turn but he kept on going until he topped the ridge.
Down the ridge, across the road, he spotted his wife and his next-door neighbor waving their arms.
Their home of 16 years was littered down the side of the hill.
“I didn’t even notice the house,” Hood said. “All I saw was her.”
First responders swarmed the area around Hunter and Short Tail Springs roads where dozens of trees blocked the road. Ambulances and firetrucks lined behind the blockaded streets, while the paramedics watched and waited.
As branches were tossed aside with lightning speed and tree trunks rolled out of the way, the line of vehicles — lights flashing — slowly wove their way through the narrow path. But every twist of Short Tail Springs Road brought more damage. Splintered trees made any kind of rapid response impossible.
Just up the road, at Lakewood Baptist Church, desperate family members waited for news from loved ones as EMS personnel stopped them from pushing farther into the debris-strewn roads.
Bits of yellow and pink insulation dotted the trees. Palmetto fans of splintered trees jutted into the air amid the destroyed homes.
Ann Payne, 60, paced the church parking lot, anxiously running her hands through her gray hair. Her 83-year-old mother was up there somewhere in that mess. Payne had not talked to her.
“I’m not good at sitting and waiting. I need to know she’s OK,” she said again and again, lighting a cigarette, and eyeing the first responders who were holding family members at bay.
After waiting about 30 minutes, Payne paused until first responders were distracted and then cut up over the hill, dodging fallen trees and headed toward her mother’s home.
In time, survivors started walking out. Many of them carried small bags, a purse or pets.
They looked dazed, stunned.
“I’m going to get a backhoe, so I can help clean up,” one man said as he walked down the road.
David Mitchell limped down the road, carrying a Mello Yello in one scratched and bleeding hand.
“How much farther until I can get some help?” he asked. “I think my arm is broken.”
Mitchell, a third-shift worker, said he was asleep in his mobile home when the storm hit.
“I heard a thud,” he said. “It slung me 200 feet; I was pinned under the trailer. And I was naked; it sucked all the clothes off me.”
He borrowed a phone to call a friend to come take him to the hospital, but insisted he didn’t need any help getting out to Hunter Road.
“I got nothing, but I’m alive,” he said, as he slowly limped on down the road.
As line after line of storms rolled across the region Friday, some residents said they paid more attention this year to tornado warnings than last April, when twisters killed about 80 in the region and damaged hundreds of homes and businesses.
In South Pittsburg, Tenn., — the entry point of storms early Friday that tore across the Sequatchie Valley, northern Hamilton County and plowed through Bradley toward the east — staff at City Hall took cover in ready-made storm shelters that came with the building.
“This was an old bank,” South Pittsburg City Administrator Bently Thomas said of the town’s city hall. “There are three vaults in the building.”
At the Bayside Baptist Church in Harrison, a makeshift Red Cross and Salvation Army shelter, more than 100 refugees and emergency service providers rushed to the basement when a second funnel cloud was spotted at about 5:45 p.m.
While waiting the storm out, the Red Cross proffered 500 sandwiches and bottled water. Domino’s Pizza also was provided to the emergency teams.
Bayside’s own pastor, Chris Coats, is one of the people who called the church’s Multi-Purpose Building home overnight. Fallen trees cut power in his Lakeside Estates home, which prompted him, his wife and four daughters to seek shelter.
Even Coats’ father and wheelchair-bound mother came to Bayside from Brainerd for “the sake of security,” he said.
Staff writers Mariann Martin, Beth Burger, Joan Garrett, Adam Poulisse, Ben Benton, Ansley Haman, Randall Higgins and Judy Walton contributed to this report.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...