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OCOEE, Tenn. — Families, volunteers and emergency responders continue to pick up the pieces in the wake of a storm that left two dead in the Ocoee community in Polk County early Wednesday morning.
The National Weather Service confirmed a category EF-3 tornado, characterized by wind speeds of between 136 and 165 mph, struck the area.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Polk County Emergency Management Agency estimated the storm measured three miles wide and four miles long, running north. The agency earlier believed the storm was less than half that size, when it had been searching the area under dark skies and downpours of heavy rain.
"We're still in a little bit of rescue mode, making sure everybody's good, they got what they need as far as food and water," Polk County Sheriff Steve Ross said as the rain finally began to dwindle in the growing afternoon light. "It's a tragedy and I hate that it's happened. We'll get through it."
The 2 a.m. storm pummeled homes and businesses, downed power lines and twisted the tops off trees in the Polk County community, which runs along Highway 411 and crosses over nearby Highway 64. Winds demolished the West Polk Volunteer Fire Department's 40-year-old fire station and the Ocoee post office.
Polk County EMA Director Stephen Lofty, who also serves as the West Polk fire chief, confirmed four people suffered injuries in addition to the two who died during the event. He would not identify the victims or say exactly where emergency responders found them, speaking to the media while standing on waterlogged ground behind the destroyed fire station.
Tennessee EMA spokesman Dean Flener described the victims as husband and wife.
Preliminary assessments indicate the tornado caused at least $1 million in damage to the community, heavily damaging or destroying at least 40-50 residences and businesses, Lofty said. The tornado destroyed a number of modular homes in its path.
In an afternoon news conference, Lofty voiced concerns over how the residents and business owners will make ends meet, citing the economy, insufficient insurance and other possible hardships.
"They may not have adequate funds to take care of their day-to-day needs," Lofty said.
Behind him, a screen of torn trees blocked a clear view of Stump Street, which runs parallel to Highway 411 and the nearby CSX railroad tracks. Public safety officers blocked access to the road, except for emergency responders and utility maintenance crews. Observers could hear a near-constant buzzing of chainsaws and glimpse scattered debris and damaged homes.
Paul Miller of Polk County EMA said the agency currently speculates the tornado touched down right near where a small stretch of Longley Road connects Highway 411 and Stump Street.
Ginger Wilcox, who lives in a trailer on Stump Street, said only God saved her family, which joined about a dozen others taking refuge at a Red Cross shelter set up at Polk County High School shortly after the tornado hit.
She said she woke up with her bed and the floor shaking, and something told her to get her 18-year-old son, Brett, out of his bedroom.
"As soon as I went and told him to get up, and we walked out his door, trees came in through his window, through the ceiling, and it was right where he was laying," Wilcox said.
Within a split second, she heard a loud roar which turned into a low growl and the trailer continued to shake.
"When I started praying, it just stopped," she said. "God is good. God is good."
Their trailer suffered extensive damage and cannot be inhabited, Wilcox said.
"There's some stuff that was damaged and whatnot, but it's all right," Brett said. "I'm alive and I'm happy about that."
Outside the trailer, the family saw nothing but destruction and chaos in the darkness, his mother said. Live power lines and trees were down everywhere.
Wilcox praised the efforts of the police, fire and other safety officer who came to Ocoee's rescue.
Multiple local, state and mutual aid responders joined their Polk County comrades, including Bradley County and Monroe County deputies.
"It takes a lot of good people, and I call them heroes in my book," Wilcox said.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker discussed the tragedies in East Tennessee Thursday on the Senate floor.
"Mr. President, I rise today to express my deepest sympathies and offer steadfast support to the countless Tennesseans who have experienced tragedy in the recent days," he said. "It's been a rough few weeks in our great state."
"Last week, my hometown of Chattanooga lost six young children in a tragic school bus crash. And today, countless East Tennesseans face a long road ahead after severe storms and tornadoes ripped through Southeast Tennessee, leaving tremendous damage and taking the lives of two individuals in Polk County."
Corker called the wildfires in Sevier County an "unimaginable tragedy" and said he will support requests for assistance for the recovery efforts alongside Governor Bill Haslam, Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman Phil Roe.
"So many wonderful families call Sevier County home," Corker said. "Tough, proud people whose roots in the area span generations."
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.
Last updated Dec. 1 at 7:09 p.m. with comments from Bob Corker.