Tornado victims struggle to replace vital papers

photo Sandra Self talks about the April 27 tornado that destroyed home home on Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga.

RECOVERY RESOURCES• Address Change: When you move, be sure to change your address with the Post Office, IRS, and other government agencies, so that you'll continue to receive mail and any government benefits at your new location:• Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates: Get records based on the location of the birth, death, marriage, or divorce.In Georgia, go to Tennessee, go to Alabama, go to• Damaged Money: The Treasury Department will exchange mutilated or damaged U.S. currency. For information, go to• Document Restoration (Flood): The National Archives offers information on how to care for your flood damaged photos, books, papers, and more at• Document Restoration (Fire): The Library of Congress offers information on restoring fire-damaged documents and collections at• Drivers' Licenses and Vehicle Registration: Find your state's motor vehicle department to get or replace your driver's license, and register your car.In Georgia, go to Tennessee, go to Alabama, go to• Green Card Replacement: Get instructions on how to replace a lost, stolen, or damaged permanent resident card (green card). For more information, go to• Legal help: Storm victims can find out about specific services provided by Tennessee Disaster Legal Services at 888-395-9297, and they also can call Legal Aid of East Tennessee 423-756-4013.• Medicare Card replacement: Learn how to replace a lost, stolen, or damaged Medicare card. For more information, go to• Military service records: Get copies of military service records, to prove military service or to research genealogy. For more information, go to• Passport: Report your lost or stolen passport immediately. Contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if your passport is lost or stolen overseas, or go to• Savings bonds recovery: Cash and replace lost, stolen, or destroyed bonds. For information, go to• School Records: Contact your former school or the appropriate school district if the school has closed. For more information about how to reach districts or find information on financial aid records at• Social Security Card Replacement: Learn how to replace your lost or stolen Social Security card at• Tax Return: Request a copy of your federal tax return from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at Federal Emergency Management Agency

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Count Sandra Self among the people whose family photographs and sensitive personal information were scattered to the winds when tornadoes raked the tri-state area April 27.

The Catoosa County, Ga., tax commissioner and her husband, Dennis, lost everything they owned in the EF4 tornado that killed seven of their neighbors and leveled many of their homes.

On top of the physical devastation and loss, Self and others found that important papers and personal documents had been scattered near and far, sometimes hundreds of miles.

At worst, that made tornado victims vulnerable to identity theft and left some with no personal records as they tried to piece their lives together.

People in Knoxville, Maryville and Loudon, Tenn., found some of the Selfs' canceled checks and the senior photo of her son, Eric, from Ringgold High School.

Volunteers recovered an American flag that had draped the casket of Self's grandfather, World War I veteran Floyd A. Connolly, in 1954.

Unlike many residents, the Selfs kept their deeds, wills, marriage license and birth certificates in a safe-deposit box at their bank. She said that, as tax commissioner, she knows how important it is to keep those documents safe.

But others can be left scrambling for answers.

A woman who identified herself as a storm victim from Pisgah, Ala., said she was at the Jackson County Health Department to get a copy of her birth certificate. She said she lost everything in her home, including all her records, but federal and state officials were attempting to help.

"It's really a godsend," she said. "It's like people have put their priorities in the right place now."

Greg Hughes, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman stationed in Bradley County, Tenn., said people who have lost everything can start re-establishing important papers with minimal information.

"If that person knows their Social Security number, that's a good place to start," Hughes said.

Tony Gervolino, at First National Bank of Pikeville in Bledsoe County, Tenn., said banks have a wealth of resources to help customers protect their identities when sensitive papers and documents are strewn across the state.

"We've helped about three dozen people so far," Gervolino said. "We're open to anyone, if they bank with us or don't bank with us. We wanted to make sure that anybody in the community has the opportunity to protect themselves."


Birth certificates are among the vital records people don't think about until they need them, according to FEMA officials. Vital records also include death, marriage and divorce certificates that many people might not realize they have lost.

Northwest Georgia Public Health District spokesman Logan Boss said few residents have asked for replacement documents from the Catoosa County Health Department, but he thinks that could change as people continue recovery efforts. Catoosa's office and the office in Floyd County can provide copies of vital records for North Georgia residents.

"It may be too soon after the storms for people to realize they have lost a birth certificate," Boss said. "But they can get those birth certificates replaced regardless of which Georgia county they were born in."

People can contact state health departments in their birth states for copies of birth certificates. Services also are available at county offices, officials said.

Boss said office staff members are taking requests for replacement of WIC vouchers. Northwest Georgia residents primarily use the department's offices in Catoosa and Floyd counties, he said.

In Tennessee, storm victims also can get free legal help.

"There is a legal service provided for people who have lost things like wills and other legal documents," said Dean Flener, spokesman with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The Tennessee Bar Association is providing pro bono legal services for victims of the disaster.

And Tennessee Disaster Legal Services offers help with FEMA and other governmental benefits, insurance claims for life, medical and property losses, consumer-protection issues related to repair and rebuilding, and landlord and tenant problems.


Gervolino said documents and even checkbooks from tornado-blasted homes in Bledsoe's Brayton Mountain, New Harmony and Pitts Gap communities were found as far away as Kentucky and North Carolina.

The first thing people who have lost financial records need to do is to place a "fraud alert" on their credit reports, he said. The bank in Bledsoe has been working with Equifax, he said.

An "initial" fraud alert placed on a person's credit report or credit file warns potential creditors they must use what federal law calls "reasonable policies and procedures" to verify identity before issuing credit in that person's name, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The initial alert lasts 90 days and can be renewed. An alert filed with one consumer reporting agency will be passed on to the other two, according to the FTC.

Victims of identity theft may have "extended" alerts placed on their credit reports that would require potential creditors to contact the victims in person before credit can be issued in their names.


Restoring damaged items is different from simply finding replacements, according to Lindsay Childs, assistant vice president of BMS CAT. Her company specializes in disaster recovery and decontamination. That includes recovering and restoring damaged documents, particularly those connected to commercial, medical and government buildings.

BMS CAT helped with government document recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon and other disasters, she said.

"You can recover almost anything but 'gone,'" Childs said. "First you have to find it, which in a tornado can be a real issue."

After they start to uncover storm-ripped treasures, people often don't believe wet documents or even photographs can be saved, but they can, she said.

"But it's not an inexpensive process, and you have to decide whether your expense is going to be worth it," she said.


"The power blinked and then we heard the wind pick up. My husband said, 'That's the tornado. Run,'" Sandra Self said, recalling the deadly EF4 tornado that struck Ringgold, Cherokee Valley Road and the Apison community.

"We had already talked about where we would go. I went to an interior office and he was about three or four steps behind me, and he ducked into the bathroom."

"The house was doing this," she said, bouncing her hands to illustrate the home's floor, "and then it literally exploded over us."

The wind picked up Self and peppered her with debris, she said.

"I was set down out in the yard, somewhere on the slope [downhill, toward the road]," she said, pointing to a spot a hundred feet away. "[Dennis] was on the subfloor."

The home's floor separated from the foundation and slammed back down 20 or 30 feet to the east, dumping Dennis Self onto the ground and breaking his leg, she said.

Last week, Self watched bulldozers push pieces of what's left of her home and belongings about a quarter-mile downhill to the road where Catoosa County crews can haul it away.

The foundation of the Cherokee Valley Road home she built in 1987 holds a pile of waterlogged, wind-blown books from her pastor husband's library, some old photos stuffed into a tiny wooden box, a few election fliers, some old floppy discs, an eyeglass case, appliance manuals, a television remote.

Self doesn't plan to keep any of it.

She can't bring herself to sift through the debris of the home where her three children were raised to adulthood.

She won't even look at it, except distantly.