City officials are relying on the "spirit of Chattanooga," to endure and rebuild after Sunday's tornado that killed at least 10 people between Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Hamilton County alone.
The majority of Bob Ateca's second floor and roof was ripped from his home by the EF-3 tornado that also uprooted and flung a large tree, crushing much of what remained while he, his wife and 17-year-old daughter took shelter in the basement.
"I went up the stairs to see what kind of damage there had been because we heard glass and whatever else, but had no idea, and there just really wasn't a roof or much of an upstairs at all ... I was stunned," said Ateca, the athletic director for Grace Baptist Academy, which was also dismantled by the storm.
"We're now just trying to get the last of our stuff out, and I guess it's just still hard for me to believe this happened," Ateca said, standing in front of what's left of his home. "I've never seen anything like this in person, I mean I've seen it on TV, but certainly never experienced it."
During a three-minute conversation with the Times Free Press, a former colleague helped Ateca clear out his belongings in the background, and neighbors stopped him to offer snacks and prayer.
"Someone's constantly coming by offering to cut up the tree or help me move things," Ateca said, noting his neighbors all checked in on one another at the time of the storm. "We were all definitely in disarray, but we were able to come out and check on our neighbors to make sure everything is OK."
This outpouring of support from neighbors is not unique to Ateca, but is rather the core of what Chattanoogans and Hamilton Countians do in times of crisis, according to local leaders.
"It really is exactly the spirit of Chattanooga to want to help and to volunteer, and we're all just trying to help in the best possible way," District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford told the Times Free Press Wednesday after visiting Holly Hills. "People and businesses from hoteliers to restaurants, who are hurting right now because of the virus, are asking, 'What can we do? How can we help?' And these volunteers and citizens are going to be the backbone of our recovery."
Staring down at scores of homes in disrepair along with some of his colleagues from the city council, Ledford, whose district includes much of the city's damaged area and borders the battered neighborhood, said that this mentality will help the area prevail.
"The line of communication and the community response has been huge," he added. "Every constituent I hear from just wants to help."
Ledford's colleagues, Councilman Erskine Oglesby and Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, echoed the sentiment.
"It's so emotional, and it's so hard to see," Coonrod, who lives in and represents the nearby District 9, said. "I know we were scared where I was. But then when it was over, I just kept hearing from people, 'How do I help? How do I help?'"
About 12,000 structures in Hamilton County suffered $200-300 million in damage, Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman estimated. The worst impact is in the East Brainerd section of the city, and the Holly Hills neighborhood, located on the city/county border, was especially hard hit, with nearly every home damaged.
"It'd been a highly coordinated effort with Tri-County Mutual Aid and the county and Collegedale. ... We're all in the same situation, and we're all just working, despite city limits, to recover as quickly and as safely as possible," Hyman said. "The teamwork has been essential."
Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy echoed Hyman, adding that hundreds of local and out-of-town first responders had been working nearly around the clock since Sunday, despite many suffering damage of their own.
"I joked earlier, 'How do you eat an elephant,' and everyone said, 'One bite at a time,'" Roddy told the council members on their tour of the area. "And I said, 'No, you bring 500 friends,' and that's exactly what we're doing here to get this under control."
As first responders worked to keep the area clear and finish damage assessments on Wednesday, dozens of volunteers from different groups trucked water and tools into Holly Hills and the surrounding areas to help those impacted by the storm.
"We just do whatever small relief we can, whether it's drag debris or provide water," Callie Adams, 18, who is volunteering in the area through Omega Center International in Cleveland, said. "We just know people are hurting and feel called by God to be here on standby for whatever it is they need."
As recovery efforts continue, Roddy is pleading with citizens to stay out of the most affected areas to minimize traffic and protect storm victims, unless they are part of a coordinated volunteer effort through the Hamilton Place YMCA, which is accepting donations of unused supplies like blankets and toiletries and assigning individuals who wish to volunteer.
"We have so many great community members who want to help, but they really need to go through the YMCA to be safe and effective. ... There have been vehicles in the area that have been stopped and checked and redirected," Roddy said. "We're still compiling those reports to see what that looks like, but our posture in those late-night and early-morning hours are not anticipated to change in the near future. We're still wanting to make sure that we keep those neighborhoods, for lack of a better term, as 'locked down' as possible."
Roddy says with not much legitimate cleanup work possible in the dark, traffic is being especially monitored at night.
"The first night or two, I know we had homeowners in these houses sleeping in these houses," Roddy said. "Houses with no windows, no doors, no power and destruction everywhere. We want to give them as much peace as we can to let them know we're going to watch out for your stuff, go get some rest."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.