published Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Not all escaped Chattanooga area's severe weather unscathed, but it could have been worse

REGIONAL STORM DAMAGE

• Hamilton County: downed trees and power lines

• Franklin County: downed tree limbs

• Bradley County: high water and wind damage, downed power lines

• Lincoln County: 2 killed, 25 buildings destroyed, school damaged

• McMinn County: tree damage

• Dade County, Ga.: downed trees

• Walker County, Ga.: downed power lines and tree limbs

• Jackson County, Ala.: no major damage

• DeKalb County: 10 homes destroyed, 40 damaged, two chicken farms destroyed

• Limestone County, Ala.: two deaths, 17 injured

Sources: Hamilton County Emergency Services, Franklin County Sheriff's Office, Bradley County Emergency Management Agency, McMinn County, Jackson County Sheriff's Office, The Associated Press, Walker County Sheriff's Office, Dade County Sheriff's Office, DeKalb County Sheriff's Office

The worst is behind us.

And that's good, because the Tennessee Valley took a beating this week. Strong winds, hail and even tornadoes were expected again Tuesday night, just 24 hours after families holed up in basements while severe storms swept through the South on Monday, killing two in Lincoln County, Tenn., and ripping homes apart in Alabama.

But now Chattanooga's weather looks good for the rest of the week, said David Hotz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Morristown. The region may see a few leftover showers today, but that's it.

So it's time to take a break from weather radios and the late-night alerts that sent residents scrambling for cover Monday when forecasters warned of a storm with prime tornado conditions. The Chattanooga area escaped any serious storm damage Monday even as other neighborhoods across the South were hit hard -- in southern DeKalb County, Ala., at least 10 homes were destroyed.

The closest possible tornado to Chattanooga could have landed near Athens, Tenn. The NWS sent an expert to Monroe County on Tuesday to check whether a tornado did actually touch down Monday night.

But the Weather Service did issue a tornado warning for Hamilton County around 9:45 p.m. Monday, because a storm system was approaching from the southwest that looked like it could easily spawn tornadoes, Hotz said. WRCB-TV chief meteorologist Paul Barys saw the same radar readings, cut into the evening's regularly scheduled TV programming and told residents in several communities to immediately take cover.

"There was a lot of rotation in the clouds, a lot of tornado warnings and if it had been daytime, I think we would have seen some funnel clouds," Barys said.

But then, nothing. No roar like a freight train. No flying debris.

"It could have been much, much worse," Barys said. "We got very fortunate on that formation."

A new storm system had developed to the east of Chattanooga even as the first storm system approached the city from the southwest, Hotz said. The new storm essentially defused the original storm.

"What happened was this storm to the east kind of robbed the energy the first storm needed to go tornadic," Hotz said. "That's part of the business. You don't know how individual storm evolutions will be in the next 15 to 30 minutes. You can only see what you see right now."

Wind gusts in Chattanooga topped out at 45 mph Monday night, and while some areas were peppered with hail, most was too small for the National Weather Service to track. Dime-sized hail did fall in Bledsoe County, and people in Athens, Tenn., reported hail as big as golf balls.

The most dramatic regional storm damage wasn't caused by high winds or hail. Grace Baptist Church in Meigs County burned to the ground after lightning apparently struck the building and started a fire.

At least 15,600 people lost power at some point Monday night and Tuesday morning, area electric utilities reported. EPB's power outages topped out at 9,000 households, but most of those households were quickly restored by EPB's Smart Grid, and crews only needed to work to restore 3,800 households.

  • photo
    Twisted pieces of metal are lodged on a broken utility pole Tuesday after overnight strong storms destroyed several houses in the Aroney community near Boaz in DeKalb County, Alabama.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
    enlarge photo

Better to be safe than sorry, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. TEMA stayed at a level three state of emergency Tuesday night in order to respond to the potential stormy weather, pulling in extra help from various state and relief agencies -- just in case. Hamilton County Emergency Services kept its emergency operations center open into the evening Tuesday as well.

"You want to do as much as possible to save lives and protect property in any type of emergency," Flener said. "So I would rather warn even if nothing happens, because that's better than not warning and something happens."

Something did happen in DeKalb County and in Lincoln County, Tenn.

About a dozen relatives helped Winston and Sue Renfroe salvage what belongings they could Tuesday afternoon from the couple's storm-ravaged home on County Road 4 in the Aroney community in DeKalb County near Boaz, Ala.

"I am lucky to be alive," Sue Renfroe said as sunlight shined through the rafters of her living room and a granddaughter swept up soggy Sheetrock from the collapsed ceiling.

The Renfroes rode out the storm that struck after midnight in their bedroom, cowering under couch cushions, and came through it uninjured.

Their two-bedroom home, however, will have to be knocked down, they say.

It's one of about 10 homes ruined overnight by a storm in DeKalb County, Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Edmondson said. The storm also wiped out two chicken farms, he said, seriously damaged about 40 homes and left many residents without electricity and water.

But no injuries were reported.

"Most everybody heeded the warnings [Monday night]. They took cover," Edmondson said.

More than 30 people died in DeKalb County during the April 27, 2011, tornadoes.

"That storm did make folks realize storms are deadly," he said.

  • photo
    Tammy Smith picks through the rubble of her mother's home Tuesday, destroyed by strong storms overnight in the Aroney community near Boaz in DeKalb County, Alabama.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

About a half mile down County Road 4, the storm did enough damage to Glenn and Fran Keener's 1960-era home that he said it was a total loss -- although its walls still stood.

It was in better shape than the mobile home next door owned by their 25-year-old daughter, Brittney Slaton, and her husband. It was in pieces and its frame was twisted around a fallen pecan tree. A neighbor's mobile home across the street also was destroyed.

Fortunately, all the occupants of the ruined structures had taken shelter in the Keeners' other daughter's brick house next door. They clustered in the master bedroom's closet listening to a weather radio when the storm struck around 1 a.m.

"We got in there, shut the door, and it hit," Glenn Keener said.

The vacuum from the storm was so strong, he said, that when the wind hit the vent pipe "it sucked water out of the commode."

Slaton said when the storm hit, "It was real quiet at first. Then we heard it like a freight train. We heard the glass breaking. The water kind of shot up from the toilet."

"We were in the closet for an hour and a half," she said.

Because the storm knocked the electricity out, it was sunrise before they saw the full extent of the damage -- including her obliterated trailer.

"I've always heard people say, 'Don't stay in mobile homes," Slaton said. "Now I know why."

Miles away in Tennessee, a husband and wife were killed in Lincoln County, Tenn., south of Fayetteville, when their mobile home was blown "quite a distance" by one of three suspected tornadoes striking there as the storms passed overnight Monday, Lincoln County Sheriff Murray Blackwelder said in a news conference Tuesday.

The couple has been identified as John Prince, 60, and his wife, Karen Prince, 44, of Tipton Road. They lived close to South Lincoln Elementary School, which was also heavily damaged and will not reopen this school year.

Students at the school had been released early because of the weather threat, and the building was empty when the tornado hit. Blackwelder said an aerial survey of the storm path shows the suspected tornado was about two miles wide. The number of structures destroyed, not counting the school, is about 25.

"This storm appeared out of nowhere," Blackwelder said. "Once it appeared, it was on the ground."

Staff writer Ben Benton and correspondent Paul Leach contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at 423-757-6651 or tomarzu@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties 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. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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