Moments in Memory: Day of tornadoes devastated Chattanooga region in 2011

Moments in Memory: Day of tornadoes devastated Chattanooga region in 2011

April 21st, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

An overturned SUV bears the spray paint markings of a search-and-rescue team on Thursday. The neighborhood along Cherokee Valley Rd. in Ringgold, Ga., was laid to waste by a tornado Wednesday night.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Gallery: 2011 tornadoes

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The community of Ringgold, Georgia, gathered early in the morning of Oct. 27, 2011, to plant trees vaporized or turned into missiles of death six months before when an EF-4 tornado ripped through the town.

The tornado cut a swath through Catoosa, Hamilton and Bradley counties on the evening of April 27, 2011. Twenty-five people died in the three counties. "The landscape of the once-quaint Georgia town still looks like a bush hog plowed through the area," is how the Times Free Press reporter characterized the scene that day.

Now, Raye Brooks and the members of the Ringgold Downtown Partners were teaming up with local attorney David Dunn and organizers of Trees for Ringgold to begin re-landscaping the town. Her group planted trees at homes and schools all day long. The last hole the group dug was for a large tree on the courthouse lawn, when the more than 200 volunteers gathered at the end of the day.

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Editor’s note:

This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.

"We were tired but hopeful," said Brooks. "Then, David Dunn got up there and announced that we had planted 348 trees that day. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone started crying because that was our [Interstate 75] exit number, 348, that got hit by the storm.

"We didn't know that, and it wasn't planned. You talking about chill bumps. It still happens to me today. That was a time when we really saw how much we loved our city. We didn't understand the soul of the city until then. It made us a united community for life."

The Times Free Press (50 cents) foreshadowed the tornadoes that would strike North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee on the morning of Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

Pam Sohn, now the editorial page editor of the Times, wrote the lead story out of a meeting of emergency responders. "Storms Batter Nation" was the five-column headline, supported by a second headline reading, "Strong weather system expected to move through area today." A large picture of an Arkansas community devastated the day before dominated the front page.

The story described first responders on a conference call with a meteorologist from the National Weather Service, who said that the area on the map with a red dot had a 70 percent chance of tornado activity. Chattanooga and the surrounding region was in the middle of the red dot.

"Normally in these storm systems, our chances range from 10 to 15 percent, and our highest chances are usually 20 to 25 or 30 percent," said Hamilton County Emergency Management Chief Bill Tittle, who died in 2016.

The EF-4 tornado and its 190-mph winds moved into Catoosa County around 8 p.m. and into Tennessee at 8:30, leaving editors at the paper little time to gather the news. Sohn said she was on the phone with Tittle relaying real-time updates of the storm's path to the news desk, which then dispatched reporters and photographers. Sohn would be an aggregator of content, taking calls and notes from reporters throughout the area before writing the latest news possible for the next morning's newspaper.

Readers of the morning paper on Thursday, April 28, were greeted with a five-column banner headline reading, "Deadly Day of Storms." At the time the paper was released to the press, there had been three reported deaths, two in Dade County and one in Chattanooga.

In a matter of hours, the journalists at the Times Free Press compiled four full pages of local coverage broken down by locality. Each page had a map of the area, photographs of damage and vignettes gathered by reporters.

"It's all gone, everything. I can't find my cat. They won't let me go back to get MeeMaw's insulin," said a woman from Trenton, Georgia.

There were only two other stories on the front page. One was a story about President Barack Obama criticizing a new Georgia immigration policy and a second announced that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher bill was dead in the state Legislature. The same topics are being debated nine years later.

"Catastrophic" screamed the single-word headline made large enough to cover six columns of the front page as the full impact of the tornadoes two days before came into focus. Sohn was joined by a fellow reporter in gathering information from the field that day and writing the lead story, which now reported 78 deaths in the tri-state region.

Below it was a six-column picture of what was left of the BP station at Exit 348 in Ringgold. The story traced the path of the storm. It first hit Ringgold, and eight people died. Then it hit Apison in northeast Hamilton County, and eight more people died. Bradley County was next, and nine people died.

For the second straight day, the newspaper used facing pages inside the first section for storm coverage.

"You're liable to see some things you've never seen before. There is a possibility that there are going to be some dead bodies. I'm trying to prepare you," Lt. Robert Starnes of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department told volunteers at Apison Elementary School.

"A sack full of Krystals rested in the passenger seat of a badly beaten Jeep Cherokee that was tossed like — well, a bag of Krystals — onto a sidewalk," was how one reporter described the scene in Ringgold.

"All you could hear was the roar — you couldn't even hear the walls being blown away. It was over in five seconds. All that was left was the carpet on the floor," Jacob Taylor of Trenton, Georgia, told one Times Free Press journalist.

The top third of the Times Free Press Sports section reported on how the tornado devastated athletic facilities at Ringgold High School. All that was left of the baseball field, the report said, was the press box and part of a concession stand. "Tigers' Fields Demolished" was the lead headline.

Lindsey Young, still a member of the Sports department, wrote a story datelined from Ringgold.

"It was midnight, nearly four hours after a tornado had changed this community forever Wednesday, and Brent Tucker was standing in what used to be Bill Womack Field. The Ringgold High School baseball coach wasn't really sure what he was looking at.

"There is no field, no light poles, dugouts or stands," Tucker said. He added, "The football fieldhouse is gone. So is the wrestling building and ROTC building. The football scoreboard is ripped in half. I went to the field last night and again today. I wish I hadn't gone either time."

Lee Anderson said on the Free Press editorial page, "We should remember and encourage as best we can those who have suffered the most from nature's ravages throughout our area. All who have the means should volunteer their time and make donations to worthy organizations that are helping the bereaved and afflicted."

Harry Austin on the Times editorial page talked of storms of "historic proportions" and "storms of death and destruction." He added, "If there is a blessing to be found in Wednesday's events, it is the outpouring of care, assistance and concern that has been apparent in the aftermath of the storms."

In the days following the storm, the National Weather Service would report that the 317 deaths on April 27 were the most tornado-related fatalities in the United States in a single day since 1925.

It said that the tornado that killed 20 people and injured hundreds more traveled 57 miles across Catoosa, Hamilton, Bradley, Polk and McMinn counties. The tornado was given a rating of EF-4 with winds ranging from 175–190 mph, and the path of the tornado was between a third and a half-mile wide.

"No one here, or anywhere, who went through it will ever forget it," said Brooks.

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.


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