RINGGOLD, Ga. - As the buzz of chain saws and backhoes echoed across the devastated downtown Monday afternoon, a lone sign greeted Ringgold residents as they drove into town.
"God bless our town. Yes, we're open," a sign in front of Gingerbread House Child Care Center said in big black letters.
It's a neat summation of Ringgold itself, which is open, but still broken.
Cleanup efforts across Ringgold and Catoosa County continued Monday as volunteers and contractors poured into the area.
"It's heartbreaking," said General Wymbs, a lifelong Ringgold resident. "But also heartwarming because of the hospitality that has been shown."
Assistance centers in Ringgold:
Authorities still were trying to add up the total number of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed from the tornado that ripped through town Wednesday night, killing at least eight residents and injuring a reported 30 people. So far, the death and injury tolls have remained the same, said Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers.
"We're in the process of now moving from emergency mode into the long-term planning stage," Summers said.
For some, long-term planning means learning to deal with the loss of loved ones.
Four closed caskets lined the front sanctuary of Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle on U.S. Highway 41 as a projector flashed photos of a mother, father, a son and daughter.
Chris Black; his wife, Pam; their 21-year-old son, Cody; and 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea, died when the worst of the tornadoes hit the ridge on Cherokee Valley Road.
Also killed on Cherokee Creek were Holly Readus, 26; Robert Jones, 47; and Jack Estep, 61. Rhea McClanahan, 86, was killed on Clark Circle.
On Monday, a long line of friends and family members stretched through the church aisle during the visitation, grieving with the Blacks' extended family.
"They were so close," said Connie Wilson, Pam Black's sister.
But the Lord was merciful and didn't allow Pam or Chris to live without their children, she said.
Chris Black had built the home about five years ago, family members said. The land was family property, and most of the cousins and Chris' mom lived nearby.
Chelsea was a junior at Ringgold High School, and Cody graduated in 2007.
"Cody was always happy," said Jessica Helton, a friend since kindergarten.
"He was the first person to play with me on the playground," she added with a laugh.
Throughout the years, she and Cody recalled when they had met in kindergarten and pretended to be puppies.
"It became a lifelong joke between me and him," she said.
On Monday, with the tornado still frighteningly fresh in the area's collective memory, stories of miracles and close calls were repeated all over town.
Wymbs looked out from his house across Sparks Street at Mount Peria Baptist Church, where the roof had been ripped off the fellowship hall. A side of the church's sanctuary crumbled and the steeple lay where the front steps once were. A church bus lay upside down in the driveway.
"We're going to rebuild," said Wymbs, who is also a deacon at the church. "It's just going to take time."
The street, which leads to Ringgold High School, was one of the worst-hit downtown areas, but residents say they believe providence kept them from any harm.
"Me and my grandbabies and the Lord" hid in the closet until the storm blew over, said Anna Ruth Montgomery, who lives several houses down from the church.
"It's just amazing in this [neighborhood] we had no deaths," Wymbs said. "We call it a blessed miracle."
While stories of human kindness were traded back and forth Monday, authorities warned at a news conference for residents to watch out for looters and con artists.
"People in our area are desperate," Summers said. "We're concerned that they will be taken advantage of."
Four people were caught Sunday night hauling drinks and supplies into the bed of their truck from the tornado-damaged Kangaroo convenience store on Alabama Highway, an incident report shows.
Two young men also were caught the same night near Ringgold High School.
All six were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, the sheriff said.
Authorities also warned that contractors trying to scam residents were reported in the area. One contractor tried to charge a resident $41,000 to remove trees from his property, the sheriff said.
"We ask that people focus on local companies," he said.
All contractors are now required to have a permit from Catoosa County before providing services to the area, he said.
A 9 p.m. curfew also will continue to be enforced this week; anyone who doesn't live in Ringgold is asked to stay out.
"[Workers] don't need to be interrupted by a lot of traffic," said Catoosa County Commissioner Jim Cutler.
Contact Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.