Chattanooga tornado tore through the night after a day of Easter hope, leaving residents bewildered

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey /An American flag waves outside Heather Nelson's home in the Holly Hills subdivision of Chattanooga on April 14. A tornado destroyed homes in the area early on April 13. Nelson found the flag under the debris near her house and put it up.
photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey /Donna Carter cleans her home on April 14, a day after a tornado destroyed her home and dozens of others nearby. The 66-year-old barely made it to shelter with her husband before the storm hit.

Donna Carter stood in the remnants of her kitchen on Tuesday morning, putting what she could save in a box at her feet. The once-white cabinets around her were peppered with leaves and insulation. A worn maroon Bible sat on the counter behind Carter as she tried to put words to the painful memory of Sunday night.

"It's a blur," she said. "But I think the Lord helps us forget some of it."

Donna fell as the couple rushed to shelter. Her husband Phil pulled her inside just before the EF-3 tornado hit the Holly Hills subdivision. They could hear the windows burst and the roof being torn off as debris battered the walls around them. The force of the 145-mph wind outside sucked them toward the bathroom door, Donna said.

In less than a minute, the house the Carters lived in for more than 20 years, the house they raised their children in, was torn asunder. In the days since, Donna has been going through the unanswerable contradictions of a tornado - the upstairs bedrooms were destroyed, kitchen utensils thrown around the room but a nearby stack of greeting cards she liked sat untouched.

Nearly seven years ago, the Carters lost their 34-year-old son to health complications. The inability to comprehend what has happened now feels the same as it did then, Donna said.

"I've been through the death of a child and now this," she said.

'Then this'

On Sunday night, the EF-3 tornado killed at least nine people and injured dozens more in North Georgia and Tennessee. The storm destroyed hundreds of homes at a time when thousands of people in the area were already struggling with the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Matt Black, 42, was transitioning back to working at a truck dealership when the pandemic ended that possibility of work. Weeks later, he has one livable room left in his home. His ceilings are leaking. Half of his garage is spread across Holly Hills.

"We had enough going on with the coronavirus. Then this. On Easter. We were having a day of hope. Then this," Black said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

(READ MORE: Loss of life, property comes into focus as Chattanooga area reels after violent storms)

Black is leaning on faith and prayer with everything, he said. On Monday night, he sat in his truck until after midnight looking over the neighborhood and his house. He spent the hours thinking, he said, cycling between thinking how things could not get much worse and how he should be thankful just to be alive.

Yet, the storm is bringing the neighborhood and region together. People have passed through handing out water. Tables in neighborhoods throughout the area are full of food for the hundreds of workers who have descended on the region with pickup trucks, trash bags and chainsaws. Black is struggling to keep his phone charged.

"You realize how many friends you have when something like this happens, with all the calls and texts," Black said.

Holding onto family

The hours of daylight after the midnight tornado laid bare the extent of the damage to locals, as well as state leaders. On Tuesday, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Gov. Bill Lee toured the destroyed neighborhoods.

Steve Robinson could see the damage around his home in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He emerged from the wreckage Sunday night with an umbrella and flashlight to begin checking on neighbors. Many in the area are retired and elderly.

"It was dark but it still had that eerie glow," Robinson said. "You could see that everything here was decimated."

Around 2:30 a.m. on Monday, Robinson's wife and three of their sons returned home. They had been away visiting friends when the storm hit and had to walk back from the intersection of Jenkins and Shallowford roads. The road home was impassable by car.

Robinson was thankful three of his sons were gone when the storm hit. He had just moments to get to shelter. The second-story room where two of his sons sleep in a bunk bed was shredded by the tornado.

(READ MORE: Powerful overnight storms kill 7 in Murray County, Georgia; at least 23 people injured)

When the winds picked up, Kendall Falana huddled in a closet with his three-year-old. The 32-year-old had only two safe places in his home that did not have exterior walls, he said. Falana's wife took shelter in a nearby closet with their one-year-old. The couple shouted back and forth to let the other know they were OK, Falana said. Then the tornado hit.

"It sounded like constant explosions. We were screaming to each other, 'Are you OK?' but you couldn't hear anything," Falana said. "So for about 45 seconds I had no idea."

A two-by-six board burst through the house's front door like a missile. A tree outside crashed into the vehicles and the house. Falana tightened his grip on his daughter, he said.

"I was just hoping that the walls wouldn't give," he said. " They say it was supposed to sound like a freight train, but I don't remember. I was just focused on holding her as hard as I could."

Now residents like Falana are focused on the days- and weeks-long cleanup efforts. There are personal belongings to search for and insurance companies to call. Dumpsters will be hauled in and hauled away. Fallen trees will be cut up and removed. Many residents said they will rebuild and the community will come back stronger. But the neighborhood will never be the same.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.