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James Howell looks Wednesday at what is left of his Nashville Street computer store, Double Click It To Fix It, in Ringgold, Ga. Last week's tornado destroyed the store, and now looters have taken items from the rubble, he said. Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press


* Anyone with storm damage should register with FEMA at or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

* Workers who lost jobs from the storm may qualify for federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance of up to $330 a week. Individuals may visit the Georgia Department of Labor's website or contact the toll-free customer service line at 877-709-8158.

Ringgold's children won't be able to use the slides at McDonald's for a while. The glass windows have shattered inside the play area, and the empty shell is circled by a chain-link fence.

The Waffle House where early risers would grab coffee, eggs and bacon before work is a splintered husk of its former self. Gas stations are unrecognizable, their metal sheathing twisted into grotesque shapes.

The Catoosa County Sheriff's Office estimates that roughly half of all businesses in Ringgold, Ga., sustained significant damage on April 27, when hundreds of tornadoes tore through the Tennessee Valley.

Some owners returned after the storm to find their stores nothing more than heaps of condemned debris. Other shops have reopened, albeit with strips of plywood in place of glass, tarps in place of roofs and handmade signs announcing, "We're still here."

Powerful gusts of wind slammed the showroom and garage at Ringgold Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, and caused damage to more than 120 unsold vehicles, said Gene Robbins, who bought the store in December 1975.

"It's all gone," he said Wednesday as he tried to get ready to reopen for service work early next week. It could take two to three months to return the shop to "normal," if that's possible.

Not everything was ruined. Though Robbins lost the service bay doors and roof, the storm left a 1947 Dodge sitting on a lift in perfect condition, with nary a scratch.

In the end, his insurance will take care of the building and the cars.

James Howell, owner of Double Click It to Fix It, isn't so lucky.

The pile of bricks, silicon and glass that was formerly his computer repair store isn't insured, and it isn't salvageable.

"What the rain and the wind didn't destroy, the backed-up sewage did," he said. "Then the looters came through Thursday and took what the storm didn't take."

He can't even check to see if any of his customers' computers can be saved, because he'll be arrested for trespassing in a condemned building, the police told him.

Howell, however, considers himself lucky. He got out of the building 20 minutes before the tornado leveled it.

"I guess I'll just file for federal disaster unemployment and FEMA aid," he said, though he had already been turned away from the Ringgold FEMA headquarters.

"They're only talking to homeowners right now," he said.

In the meantime, he waits.

Renewal begins

Those who have the resources already have started to rebuild.

Initially, thousands of customers lost power and communications services when the storm propelled remnants of buildings and trees to lethal speeds, severing wires and flinging away utility poles.

"Probably a good 150 businesses went down initially," said Philip Foster, vice president of service design for the Ringgold Telephone Co.

He estimates 1,000 Ringgold customers lost wired communications, and North Georgia EMC said that 27,000 homes and businesses lost electricity.

However, 95 percent of the businesses still in existence are back online today, he said.

After all, the 75 percent of Ringgold's residents whose homes are undamaged still need to buy food, restock toiletries and refill prescriptions.

That's why employees at the Food Lion south of Interstate 75 worked for six days to clean out the insulation, drop-ceiling tiles and broken glass.

It doesn't look open right now because the plywood covers the holes in the facade created by heavy winds, and the familiar sign on the building is broken in several places.

But the hand-lettered "Yes we are open" sign by the road serves as a reminder that the community isn't standing idly by.

Inside the air-conditioned oasis, local families stock up on necessities they've been doing without as they waited for roads to clear.

And as long as they need chain saws, the nearby Ace Hardware is a good second stop on their shopping trip.

Phil Cawood, manager of the 2-year-old store, can't stock anything else because he no longer has a roof.

The aluminum strips of what used to cover the structure are wrapped around his building like silver Christmas ribbons, and crews wear hard hats as they haul out his entire inventory to be liquidated.

All the employees have been sent to work at other Ace Hardware stores, because just putting the building back together will take four months.

After he gets the waterlogged supplies moved out by Friday, the real work will begin.

Starting over

On the other hand, Maria Green-Rogers, owner of what used to be the Chow Time restaurant, has no idea where to begin.

Her condemned building appears much the way it did after the storm. Chunks of it have been blown completely away, while inches away the restaurant looks eerily untouched except by looters.

The explosion of pressure from the storm blew the kitchen out through the back wall, yet in all the chaos, a cake remained unmolested on a cooking table in an unbroken glass serving dish.

Chow Time, which dates back to 1950, may not come back for months, she said.

"I'm just in the beginning stages of not knowing what to do, but this is where my heart and soul's been," Green-Rogers said.

The total damage to her building and the others that she owns nearby could be more than $750,000, she said.

"When we do rebuild, we're going to build it back bigger and better," she added. "We've got to get our town back."

Northwest Georgia Bank, which suffered significant damage to its downtown headquarters during the storm, could play a role in financing a comeback for the city.

The bank, which is giving away $50,000 to help the community, sent its Ringgold employees home until it was able to reopen on Monday, according to Stan Guess, communications officer for the bank.

"It sounded like a waterfall coming down the elevator," Guess said.

The tornado pummeled the bank's adjacent loan operations center, and customers couldn't walk into the main office or downtown Ringgold locations because of scattered debris, though the back-office operations continued to run.

Everything is back to normal now, but it's just "too early to talk about disaster loans," Guess said. "We're still in triage mode."