Chattanooga area tornado survivors face tough rebuilding decisions

Chattanooga area tornado survivors face tough rebuilding decisions

April 2nd, 2012 by Steve Hardy in News

Debbie Morse holds before and after photos of a home as she and other residents of Woodland Bay Drive, one of the areas hit hardest by the March 2 tornadoes, gather at Pin Strikes Bowling Center on Saturday. The neighborhood was a very tight-knit community and some residents have been forced to decide whether to rebuild or move away.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.


• 3,200: Truckloads of debris cleared by the county

• 8,000: Meals served by the Salvation Army to survivors and volunteers

• 700: Survivors the Salvation Army has counseled and prayed with

• 517: Applications for federal grants from the Small Business Administration

• 813: FEMA relief applicants

• $625,000: FEMA money granted to survivors so far

• 8: Applicants who received FEMA's maximum grant amount - $31,400

Source: FEMA, Salvation Army

Laughing and talking, huddled over pitchers and appetizers in the back room of Pin Strikes Bowling Center, the two dozen people - kids, couples, retirees - could pass for people at a reunion.

In a way, it's true. In the wake of February's tornadoes, the once and current residents of Ooltewah's Woodland Bay neighborhood, who have been holding monthly get-togethers for years, say that they've grown as thick as family.

At Camp Joy, the staging ground for many tornado relief organizations, there's a map that quantifies storm damage. Beige and yellow lots indicate minor damage, red dots signify more extreme destruction and maroon marks homes completely leveled.

Woodland Bay is a mess of red and maroon.

Now the neighbors are scattered like their trees and shingles. While some have begun the process of rebuilding, others, like Darla Walker and her family of seven, must make the painful decision to move or build completely new houses where their destroyed ones once stood.

"If it wasn't for these people, I wouldn't even consider [rebuilding]," she said.

Her neighbor, Jack Brassfield, is close to the family and said Walker's sons spent much of their time outdoors playing on the Brassfields' large yard.

"We raised those boys from pups," he said.

Since the storm, both families have turned to their neighbors for shelter. The Brassfields moved in with a neighbor whose home was spared, and the Walkers found a place in a Hixson home that a neighbor bought to flip.

Soon the community will begin finding out who can afford the time and money it will take to return to Woodland Bay. Several neighbors already have bought new homes elsewhere.

"That's the saddest part - that we're losing some of the couples," Brassfield said.

Kevin Ault said that of the 29 houses in the neighborhood, 12 were destroyed, and as many families are still deciding whether to stay. His own home was severely damaged, he said.

Those who decide to rebuild will face months of temporary housing. Walker's husband, Tony, said rebuilding will cost much more than simply moving on would.

There's also been a psychological toll on residents who have begun rebuilding. They've had to face their friends' ruined homes every day and watch as their own rubble is hauled off with the trash.

"It's hard, and it's going to be hard for a long time," said Ault's wife, Kimberly.

However, residents say that government and volunteer disaster workers have made the ordeal easier. Hamilton County workers have been at the scene seven days a week helping clean up, and volunteers have turned out by the hundreds.

"I am so proud of our county government. They have gone far and above," Brassfield said.

"Volunteer groups the first two weeks were wonderful," Kevin Ault added.

However, volunteer organizers say that their manpower is drying up as students' spring breaks end, visitors move back home and locals burn out.

"We need more volunteers. They're getting scarce. We get phone calls [from survivors] daily saying, 'You haven't forgotten about us, right?'" said JoJo Macatiag, of the group Open House.

Kimberly George said that in her 15 years with the Salvation Army, "We've never been stretched this thin before," as the group assists with both the recent storms and the devastating Apison tornado of April 27, 2011.

However, Woodland Bay residents say that not every visitor has come to help.

Annette Moultrie's property abuts land owned by the state and TVA. In the storm, trees on the government's property slammed into her home.

Moultrie and volunteers spent the next three weeks removing those trees from her house and lawn, only to have a Harrison Bay State Park ranger tell them to quit moving government property or face arrest.

"He told me I had no right to cut those trees. ... He said, 'You folks think y'all can do what you want with state property,'" Moultrie said.

Kevin Ault said that after the threat, he saw that volunteers who had previously helped in his neighborhood had moved to other areas.

Now Moultrie says that she's afraid of snakes living in the fallen trees, and no one has yet been sent to clear the state's property.

Harrison Bay state park officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

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