Uneven recovery

Uneven recovery

June 19th, 2011 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Wayne Burgess smiles outside his rebuilt home in Bradley County, Tenn., where construction began two weeks ago. He and 14 other people huddled in the basement to survive a direct hit from the April 27 tornado.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Weeds and flowers poke through the carpets, the ceiling fans, the old refrigerators and the lumber from what used to be homes on Hall Norwood Road.

Take the undergrowth away, and the piles of wreckage look as raw and untouched as they did the day the tornadoes swept through this rural Bradley County neighborhood April 27.

But one structure stands out starkly, with fresh vinyl siding and a shiny green metal roof.

At first glance, it's easy to assume that Wayne and Susan Burgess' home was spared. It wasn't.

The Burgesses lost the house Wayne built with his brothers 25 years ago, along with almost everything they owned.

But thanks to a quick insurance payment and a committed builder, the couple hopes to reoccupy it in just a few weeks.

Their fast-rising home in the midst of the devastation illustrates the uneven pace of tornado recovery across the tri-state area. How quickly homes are rebuilt and possessions replaced is affected by everything from insurance payments to conflicted feelings in some families about whether they even want to return to the place where they lost so much.

The Burgesses never had any doubts.

"I never thought twice about whether we'd rebuild here," Susan Burgess said. "This is where our kids were born; this is home. Some people are debating 'do I or don't I,' but for me - I wouldn't want to go anywhere else."

The tornadoes destroyed an estimated 500 homes in Bradley County, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 25 to 30 percent of those owners have started to rebuild or remodel, estimates Jerry Johnson, operations officer at Bradley County's emergency management agency and a member of the county's new long-term recovery committee.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people are living in rental housing because the homes they owned or leased are gone or unfit for occupation.

The numbers suggest a county recovery process that could stretch out for years, Johnson said.

"We didn't lose a whole lot of business infrastructure like Ringgold did, so we're dealing mainly with residential needs," Johnson said.

"Insurance companies have been overwhelmed, and it's taken many people awhile to have their claims processed," he said.

Roughly 40 percent of Bradley County homeowners with tornado damage were uninsured or underinsured, Johnson said. For them, working with FEMA can be laborious and the results sometimes disappointing, he said.

And some people just won't ask for help, he added.

"It's a proud community," he said. "We have people who are only just now starting to ask for help and starting to go through the FEMA recovery process."

Some people are living in tents, refusing to leave their property and their remaining belongings until their structures are secure again.

For others, coming home would be simply unbearable.

Down the street from the Burgesses lie the remains of the home that once belonged to the Glasgow family. Their 3-month-old baby, Chase, and the boy's aunt, Tami Glasgow, were killed in the storms.

Neighbors say the Glasgows are now living in North Dakota, and no one's heard about plans to come back anytime soon.

In the fields around the homesite lie a warped stroller and car seat. A few yards away, crosses mark the spot where the two bodies were found.

The foundation of the Glasgow home is bare, but white fabric lilies have been placed in front of a remaining lamppost, and a large plywood sign has been spray-painted with the word DANGER.

Kenneth Price, 79, who lives over the next hill, recently bought the property from the family and said he will probably build on it one day, but he doesn't know when.

"It's going to take years for things to get back to normal around here, and I probably won't be here when it happens," Price said.

The Burgesses' new 1,680-square-foot home looks much like their old home, with one key difference.

"I said right at the start, 'The storm cellar comes first, and then we'll go from there,'" Susan Burgess said.

The new cinderblock structure stands in their basement, where a bedroom was two months ago. On April 27, 15 people - family and neighbors - crowded in that room as the winds pulled the house down around them. Everyone inside survived.

"I looked up through the gaps in the wall and the floor, and I saw sky from the basement," Wayne Burgess recalled.

They spent the next weeks cleaning out with the help of family and volunteers, and they have been living at their son's house down the road.

There was a flurry of activity those first few days as neighbors assessed their damage and salvaged what few possessions they could. But since then, activity has dropped off, Burgess said.

The Burgesses know of one neighbor who plans to rebuild, but they haven't heard anything about a half-dozen others.

Rob Alderman, spokesman for the long-term recovery committee, said a key goal is to help homeowners who were uninsured or underinsured get funding for rebuilding.

"The majority are wanting to get back and move on with their lives. And rebuilding is a good way of taking control of their lives, a way of going on."

Staff writer Mariann Martin contributed to this report.