Volunteers recycle tornado-hit houses

photo Ralph Quinn pulls on a board from a tornado-damaged house in Apison, Tenn, while talking about items that can be salvaged and reused to build new homes.

Jojo Macatiag ducked under a tent roof and walked across freshly ground mulch, aiming for a truck that had just pulled in the driveway in Apison. Once there, he helped the driver unload food supplies.

The food will be eaten by the swarms of volunteers who descend daily on the Apison area in Hamilton County.

On Thursday, volunteer crews began arriving about 11 a.m. at the white tent off Apison Pike - the hub of volunteer work in the tornado-torn community. Their job for the day is to gut anything salvageable from two nearby damaged houses and use the appliances at another house where they're needed.

As the community came together in the cleanup, an idea emerged - taking old appliances, furniture and wood in insured houses that were heavily damaged and beyond repair and giving it to uninsured homeowners. It's a plan that officials across the tri-state area say is unique to Apison.

So far, one insured house has been gutted and volunteer workers are cleaning out two others, said Macatiag, who is spearheading the work.

The white tent marks the spot where, 48 days ago, Macatiag began helping his 78-year-old stepfather pick up the pieces of his trailer after the deadly tornado. Now a freshly framed house sits behind him.

Inside the house, the bathrooms are furnished with showers and the kitchen has white cabinets stacked along the walls, ready for hanging. The furniture and appliances came from the house across the street, he said.

"They were just going to tear it down and put it in Dumpsters," Macatiag said.

As Hamilton County crews continue to haul tons of construction and brush debris to designated dump sites, Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency Chief Bill Tittle said he wasn't aware of the recycling efforts taking place in Apison.

But "that's a great thing to do," he said.

Dealing with debris

Across the tri-state area, county and city leaders have organized and hired contractors to dispose of tons of splintered wood, drywall, destroyed furniture and broken limbs left behind by tornadoes.

Construction debris is being dumped at approved landfills, but in Hamilton and Catoosa counties, some tree debris is being ground into mulch and piled high at several sites for community members to pick up free. Dade County officials say they don't have the resources to grind the brush and are instead burning all the wood at a designated site.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is overseeing the debris cleanup and will reimburse counties in Georgia and Tennessee for 75 percent of the cost. In Georgia, the state will cover another 10 percent, while in Alabama, FEMA is paying 90 percent of costs until July 12, The Associated Press reported.

But officials say they wish there was a way to better recycle the usable remains, such as whole pieces of undamaged lumber.

"It's a lot more to it than what you really think," said Ringgold City Manager Dan Wright. "From an environmental standpoint, you wish there was something you could use it for that would be useful."

FEMA officials said the decision to recycle debris is up to the local governments. FEMA's job is to oversee the process to make sure agencies follow federal and state standards, they said.

"It's not up to us to instruct them how to do it," said James Townsend, a FEMA public assistance coordinator for the Northern Georgia counties.

But Townsend said there is no extra incentive for recycling debris.

In Apison

Macatiag and the volunteer crews plan to use the timber from three gutted houses along Apison Pike to build Ralph and Tammy Quinn a new home.

The Quinns said their house burned to the ground in October and the tornado destroyed the house where they were staying with their parents just down the road. The couple was stranded.

Ralph Quinn said he was relieved when he was offered the timber to rebuild their home.

"There's a lot of good stuff out here," he said, standing in the front yard of one of the houses being gutted Thursday.

The two-story house off Apison Pike was bulldozed last week, after the toilets, bathtubs and air conditioning unit were taken out, Macatiag said. Underneath a tree in the front yard, the bathroom fixtures sat shaded from the sun.

On Thursday, Bill Tracy and Aaron Brewer took off work early to continue gutting the house. Now that it's on the ground, workers can pull its wooden framework apart without worrying everything could tumble down on top of them, Tracy said.

Workers will sift through the rubble to find any pieces that are still intact or won't break when pulled from the frame.

"If you can save it, you save it," Brewer said with a laugh.

Not all the usable pieces get used, however. Volunteer crews trash any wood that has so many nails it would take hours to pull them out, for instance. There are only so many hours in the day, after all.

The work is time-consuming, Macatiag said. Volunteer crews of 15 to 20 workers took nearly 70 hours to retrieve the appliances and timber from the first house, he said.

"It takes a lot of work to put a house up, but it takes a lot more work to take it down," he said. "It's easier just to plow it up and put it in a Dumpster."

But then families like the Quinns wouldn't have a house, he said.