published Monday, March 12th, 2012

Volunteers help build new home for Cleveland family a year after tornadoes

Tammy Riden hugs her grandfather, Daniel Wagner, Wednesday afternoon at the dedication ceremony for the newly-built home Wagner shares with his wife, Geraldine Caudill. The couple's home was destroyed in the tornados that swept through the area on April 27, 2011, and was rebuilt by volunteers.
Tammy Riden hugs her grandfather, Daniel Wagner, Wednesday afternoon at the dedication ceremony for the newly-built home Wagner shares with his wife, Geraldine Caudill. The couple's home was destroyed in the tornados that swept through the area on April 27, 2011, and was rebuilt by volunteers.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.

HELPING HANDS


These are just a few of the organizations that have partnered with the Bradley County Long Term Recovery Organization to help build homes for tornado victims:

• United Way of Bradley County

• Habitat for Humanity

• Bradley Baptist Association

• Church of God — Men and Women of Action

• The Salvation Army

• United Methodist Volunteers in Mission

• Whirlpool

• Cleveland State Community College

Source: Bradley County Long Term Recovery Organzation

For two decades, the Yarber family lived on a sprawling 20 acres off Leadmine Valley Road in Cleveland, Tenn.

With two houses and two trailers on the property, the parents, siblings and children passed easily among one another’s homes and gathered every week for Sunday dinner.

The tornado that struck last April didn’t just scatter their four homes in pieces across the fields. It scattered their family, splitting them up into an ever-shifting list of medical centers and temporary housing around the region.

The property — where the storms killed 43-year-old Lisa Pack — remained in shambles for months.

“We haven’t been able to get our feet under us as a family because we haven’t been together,” said Pack’s brother, Bryan Yarber. “Everyone is so spaced apart right now.”

That’s why the new wooden frame going up on the property brings him such hope. That frame soon will become a spacious new five-bedroom house, where he will live with his parents and three children.

His family can come home.

The Yarbers are among a growing number of families that the Bradley County Long Term Recovery Organization is working to bring home nearly a year after the April 27 tornadoes, which destroyed more than 500 houses in the county.

While some homeowners have been able to make a quick comeback, dozens of families still are stuck in temporary housing while the foundations of their former homes sit bare.

“If you don’t live where you can see the damage, you just think that everything’s OK by now. But when you see it, you realize that everything’s not OK,” said Jim Polier, director of the Long Term Recovery Organization.

So far, the organization has overseen the completion of three homes and the continued construction of three more. About half a dozen more houses are expected to go up in the next six months, and about eight are getting extensive repairs under the group’s supervision, according to Polier.

“Having Jim Polier and the structure of the LTRO with full deployment capabilities has truly placed our area of recovery ahead of others in the region,” said Tennessee state Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland). “The LTRO is simply a formalized structure of what Tennesseans already do for one another; this team has simply already done the legwork and have already connected the dots to get boots on the ground and help on the way.”

Now, with nearly 100 more houses destroyed in the March 2 tornadoes and more families needing help, the organization figures it’ll just add them to the list.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Polier says.

“LABOR OF LOVE”

Those who qualify for a rebuild are typically those who received only minimal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or from their insurance companies. Each case is different, but the Long Term Recovery Organization basically decides who gets a new home through a needs-based vetting system.

The organization helps the homeowner direct his FEMA or insurance dollars to building suppliers, then partners with the recovery organization to start the build. Whatever costs remain are covered by the Bradley group, which has received all of its funding from local businesses and individuals.

At this point, the organization partners with three main builders: Habitat for Humanity, Men & Women of Action and builders with the Bradley Baptist Association. Those groups work with contractors and volunteer groups that have been filing into the region from across the Southeast, Polier said.

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Each house costs about $60,000, Polier said, but costs often are offset by building suppliers, electricians and plumbers who step up to donate supplies and labor.

Whirlpool, which just opened its new $200 million plant in the county, is outfitting all the homes with new appliances for free.

On Wednesday, the organization dedicated its third home — a small frame house on Bent Oak Road, built completely by volunteers with money donated by the community. The sturdy, vinyl-sided house replaces a wind-shredded trailer belonging to Daniel Wagner, 82, and his wife, Geraldine Caudill, 85.

“I’m not much for words,” Wagner said during the dedication. “I don’t know what to say. I wish I could say more. We just love everybody who has worked here.”

“We had never asked for any help before,” Caudill said as guests milled about during the housewarming event.

Dozens of people from all over the Southeast have been involved with bringing Wagner and Caudill back home.

“It was a labor of love,” said Lanny Tayloe, project manager for the Wagner-Caudill home. “I attribute us being able to do it to a very caring community. ... Not only in Bradley County. People have heard the call all over, and they’ve come at their own expense. They’ve just rolled up their sleeves and worked.”

FROM HOUSE TO HOME

Because the organization has a tight budget, builders generally must stick with basic floor plans and neutral color schemes. But most home recipients don’t mind.

“When you’ve lost everything that you’ve ever had, you’re very appreciative of any little thing you get back,” said Yarber. “Our heart’s desire is to have the family back together. And this house gives us our heart’s desire.”

But local workers still will try to keep the families’ needs and personalities in mind. Donors and workers made sure that the Wagner-Caudill home was given a sturdy handicap ramp.

At another building project, a painter heard that a little girl in the family wanted a pink bedroom. His company pitched in the extra money and labor to make that simple wish come true.

Once the homes are finished, the recovery organization also tackles the extra task of making sure they are furnished. Case manager Lisa Mantooth helps nonprofits and church groups “adopt” families to help get the homes fitted out and comfortable.

“We basically ask the families, ‘What is keeping you from getting back to normal?’” said Mantooth. “It can be something as simple as a bed, and that makes all the difference in the world. ... They are all so overwhelmed at people’s generosity. I see lots of tears.”

For many storm victims, the new house is an upgrade from where they previously lived. And every home includes one critical improvement: a safe room in case of future tornadoes.

The Wagner-Caudill home includes a walk-in bedroom closet that has been anchored with metal cables plunged into several feet of concrete. Even if another tornado sweeps the house away, builders say that room is not going anywhere.

And the threat of more tornadoes is all too real.

The couple’s original dedication day had to be postponed when a tornado swept into the county on March 2, toppling more homes.

Mantooth already has six referrals of families who are seeking assistance after the most recent storm, raising the question — just how long is recovery going to take?

Polier and Mantooth remain unfazed.

“I’m not discouraged by it, because I know how great we all work together,” Mantooth said. “You hate to do it again, but we know we can do it if we need to.”

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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