RINGGOLD, Ga. - After a Sunday morning spent driving around the destroyed homes and businesses of Ringgold, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was struck by one thing above all else - the community's resilience.
"This is a tough one, but this is a tough town and a tough area. People are going to come back," she said at a media briefing. "Recovery is alive and well here, in Ringgold and in the whole surrounding area."
Napolitano, who is scheduled to speak at the commencement of Emory University in Atlanta today, met with volunteers and victims of April's tornadoes while touring downtown Ringgold and surrounding areas.
More than 80 people in the tri-state region died as a result of the storm, including eight people in Ringgold.
The Cabinet member heads the department under which the Federal Emergency Management Agency operates, and she stressed the organization isn't leaving the area until everything is back in order.
"Our teams were in the field within hours, we are still in the field, we will remain in the field until we are confident that these communities are well on their way to recovery," she said.
Only when FEMA officials believe they've registered everyone qualified for assistance, directed funds to the neediest pockets and gotten the OK from their Georgia office will they pull out, she said, but that's not likely to happen for a long time.
"It's one of those things, you know it when you feel it," she said.
Right now, many Ringgold residents said they feel happy just to have some semblance of normalcy back in their lives. Several churches held services Sunday morning, and though its steeple was blown off, First Baptist Church hosted Napolitano, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, both R-Ga., for a short, casual breakfast.
"Even with the other stuff going on in the world, it's nice to know they're still thinking of our little town," said Brant Olivarri, a minister at the church. "I know it meant a lot to our people."
Olivarri's church still couldn't hold Sunday school - it is housing volunteers from far away in the rooms where classes are held.
And those volunteers have plenty to do. Wisps of home insulation are still caught in the grass of Ringgold neighborhoods. Most of the roads are cleared, but piles of rubble block sidewalks in front of the foundations of former homes.
Housing and hope
Touring Ringgold, Napolitano certainly saw some of the area's worst damage, but she encouraged even those less affected to apply for FEMA aid. The more people who register, the longer FEMA can stay in affected areas and the more money will be distributed, she said.
As of Saturday night, 520 Catoosa County residents were registered and about $337,000 of federal money was headed to the area. That included $328,000 headed toward housing assistance, Napolitano said.
"The number one thing for many individuals is finding them housing," she said. "If we can repair the damage now before the next set of rains, we may be able to get them back in their original home rather than spending months and months and months in a rental property."
Ringgold native PJ Lucas' mother had family to depend on when the tornado shattered her home into sticks.
Lucas, her husband and stepchildren picked through the remains Sunday, looking for two boxes of winter clothes.
Little remains of the house. The obliterated front walls, roof and living room have been cleared away. A doorless closet still stands with a green mattress lying in front of it, right at the edge of the destruction.
When the storm hit, Lucas' two children were visiting their grandma, playing the card game Phase 10 in the living room. The kids got scared of the storm. They had to persuade their grandmother, but eventually they all piled into the closet and covered themselves with the mattress. Their persuasion likely saved all their lives, Lucas said.
"They're OK, but it hasn't rained and it hasn't stormed since then," Lucas said.
And she expects the two are a bit traumatized. When the family stayed at a different house right after the storm, her son holed up in the closet and refused to come out.
As long as the skies are sunny, Lucas doesn't worry too much. Her family is physically fine, and they're prepared for the long task of sifting through the remains of her mother's house and eventually rebuilding it.
So far, she's had plenty of help from volunteers and even strangers walking down the street.
And that spirit, the resilience of the town, is what struck Napolitano.
"The sense of community involvement and strength here is very noticeable, and what we need to do - and what we will do and are committed to do - is to provide all the support we can," she said. "But neighbor to neighbor, local communities, that's where it starts."