published Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

One year later: Rebuilding of homes, lives continues after Harrison tornado

Homes along Wolftever Creek are still in a state of repair after tornado damage.
Homes along Wolftever Creek are still in a state of repair after tornado damage.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Harrison residents salvage remnants from their residences after an F-3 Tornado touched down in the waterfront Chattanooga suburb on Friday, March 2, 2012. Homes along Wolftever Creek were badly damaged in the March 2, 2012 tornado.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

At 15 minutes until 1 in the afternoon on March 2, 2012, while a tornado ripped through their street, snapping trees and roofs and disrupting lives, Ed and Rosie Cox stood inside a dollar store, building silk flower arrangements for their friends in a nursing home.

Max Cofer, their 76-year-old neighbor on Short Tail Springs Road, watched the news on TV, alone. Another neighbor, Bob Elliott, waited in a freezer in the back of a Bi-Lo, following orders and hiding.

At that exact time, Elliott's wife, Jan, stood on the third step toward her basement, reaching back to shut the door behind her. As she gripped the knob, the door pulled against her. She looked up, and her roof collapsed.

It's been one year since the tornado landed in Harrison, pushing 9.3 miles through parts of Ooltewah and stopping near Snow Hill. The tornado was one of six in the region that day, but it was the strongest, with winds whipping as fast as 165 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

A tornado can swallow up whole homes and spit pieces out across a region, leaving victims to scramble to find evidence of their old lives. Likewise, the damage of such a storm is difficult to measure, as is the recovery 365 days later.

Hamilton County Emergency Management officials said the tornado reduced 82 houses to rubble and damaged 262 more. Who knows how many of those have been rebuilt? Repaired?

Here are some other numbers to consider: Tornadoes that day led to about $2.5 billion in insurance claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The Small Business Administration gave out about $2.3 million more in loans, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency handed out another $1 million -- including $315,000 in Hamilton County.

The financial impact is one way to measure the storm's impact. Nobody died from the tornadoes, but they uprooted people from their homes, stripped hills that once were covered by trees and left survivors wondering if it could happen again, and when.

As he ran down a hill to his home last year, Bob Elliott, 66, saw trees leaning through his roof. Elliott yelled his wife's name: "Jan! Jan! Jan!"

She was waiting on the back porch to tell him what happened. She had been sitting in her bedroom, watching TV when a storm warning flashed on the screen and her cats and dogs began running around the house. She felt a strange feeling -- "just one of those things," she told her husband -- and dashed from her bedroom to the basement. The tornado brushed through as she tried to close the door, but in a snap it had passed.

The Elliotts never lived in the house again -- they recently sold the broken skeleton to a contractor and bought a new house on Bramlett Road.

Bob returned earlier this week to haul away boxes of whatever items he could find that were still usable. Shredded tires line his yard. A shattered chair sits upside down in a bed of snapped wood. Insulation covers the floors of his former home, some of it brown with mildew, a battle scar after suffering a year's worth of rain without a roof.

"It breaks me up every time I come down the road," Bob said. "It looks like a war zone."

Across the street, Max Cofer stood on the porch, alone. That's the way he usually likes things. He said he was the first one to move in here 33 years ago. He liked the place for its privacy. A full lawn of white oak trees once hid his house from the road.

After the storm, he said he was the only one still living on Short Tail Springs Road until a couple neighbors finally came back in October. He calls himself a loner and said he doesn't want much interaction. But still ...

"It's sort of lonesome-like, you know?" he said. "It's just a mess. The wind can get up now, and I hear it and I get scared. I used to like listening to storms."

Across the street from Cofer, to the right of the Elliotts' house, the Coxes sat in their living room that still smells brand-new. They returned after their house was rebuilt in October.

On this day one year ago, Rosie was in bed, sick with a lung infection. But the weather seemed so nice that afternoon -- low 70s and sunny.

Soon after, a cold front would come, according to the National Weather Service, and before that a strong band of winds would hit, causing the tornadoes. But Rosie and Ed didn't know that. Ed, a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, wanted to stay in to prepare a sermon for the next day, but he agreed to take Rosie to the store.

When they returned to their home, spikes of glass cut through Rosie's bed, where she had been resting.

"It was an act of God," she said. "It had to be."

These days, Rosie isn't as scared as she thought she would be. They're back in the house, and everything feels normal, for the most part. But now she and Ed sleep on different sides of the bed.

She can't bear lying next to the window.

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