Signal Mountain twister leaves behind lesson

Signal Mountain twister leaves behind lesson

March 5th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

Staff photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press Nathaniel Milligan checks for any recoverable items from Sherri Cash's destroyed truck at Cash's Signal Mountain home. A tornado and storm Monday felled several trees on her home and property.

Sherri Cash looked out her Signal Mountain kitchen window expecting to see darkening sky Monday after her son Graham made her listen to a bulletin on his weather radio.

As she turned on the television, she glanced toward her yard. The air was greenish yellow.

Hail began hitting the front of the house, and as she and her sons, both in their 20s, huddled in a kitchen corner, the rain, hail and wind were moving sideways.

"It was horizontal. I've never see that before," she said.

When the storm and "the loudest sound" Cash said she'd ever heard subsided, the family had three trees on the house and two on their truck.

The EF1 tornado that danced across 2.2 miles of the southern end of Walden's Ridge before dropping as another funnel cloud in Red Bank made it clear that an often-repeated myth about mountains being safe from tornadoes is not to be believed.

It was the first recorded tornado to strike Signal Mountain.

The twister and the storm system that spawned it damaged 34 homes on Signal Mountain and about 225 structures throughout Hamilton County, including 80 in Red Bank, 72 in Chattanooga, 24 in East Ridge and 10 in Lakesite, according to emergency officials. A third tornado earlier in the afternoon touched down in Marion County.

"Tornadoes can and do travel up and down mountains," said Tim Troutman, the warning coordinator meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn.

"Terrain does play a role in tornado development and weakening, but no one [or landscape] is 100 percent safe," he said, adding that tornadoes have occurred in the past on the Cumberland Plateau and mountain region of the Tennessee Valley. "And nothing states that it can't happen again."

Widespread impact

Bill Tittle, chief of emergency management for Hamilton County, said the damage from the tornadoes is still coming to light, but emergency crews believe there may be enough in Hamilton County to qualify for federal disaster relief.

"The same storm system dumped a lot of rain on upper East Tennessee. Coupled with that flooding damage, we think we may be able to document enough damage to ask the governor to seek a [federal disaster] declaration," he said.

Such a designation could make low-cost repair loans available to homeowners, and could help defray government cleanup costs for public works and road-clearing crews, as well as EPB powerline repairs.

Many in the paths of Monday's three relatively weak EF0 and EF1 tornadoes reported no damage, but nearly every home and business in Hamilton County lost power. About 61,000 customers were out of power right after the storm, according to EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton.

It was gradually restored over the next few days, though outages persisted in some areas, including parts of Signal Mountain, North Chattanooga and Hixson. Power was finally returned to the last dozen customers Thursday night, Newton said.

In the past week, 477 EPB workers replaced more than 125 broken power poles to bring lights to 1,361 problem locations.

For perspective, she said, only 87 poles were broken during the Blizzard of 1993 when more than 20 inches of snow fell on the region.

But aside from lost power, the tornadoes' impacts took on something of a sleeper appearance to many local residents.

Even Sherri Cash was surprised to learn Thursday morning that what had ravaged her neighborhood on Fern Trail, Arrow Drive and East Brow Road in the Palisades was actually a tornado.

"I just thought it was a really bad storm," she said.

George Matthews, chief meteorologist of the National Weather Service's Morristown office, said the woodsy mountain and valley terrain of Signal Mountain, Red Bank and Chattanooga hid the damage.

"With that in mind, the damage might seem more sporadic. And you don't have a continual damage path with a low-end tornado," he said. "Also, tornado strength goes up and down in different terrain."

STORM WATCH

To see a list of documented tornados in Hamilton County, go to www.srh.noaa.gov/mrx/?n=td_hamilton_tn