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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Kristen Otto talks about the location where her home once stood on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020.

Her home of 12 years is gone, flattened six months ago by a tornado and then bulldozed away, but Kristen Otto learned recently that fines might start accruing if she didn't cut back the grass on the empty lot in her devastated neighborhood off Shallowford Road.

By the time the letter from the city reached Otto at the apartment in Ooltewah where she and her husband are living temporarily, she had one day to comply before fines of $50 a day might begin, according to the notice. She posted to a neighborhood message board asking for help, and a stranger rode his mower to her lot in Drake Forest and cut the grass.

"I could not find a way to get that done in time," she said.

Donna Williams, director of Economic and Community Development for the city, said Otto could have called the number on the notice and talked with the city about her circumstances.

"What typically happens is the property owner will reach out to who is listed on the letter and we accommodate that situation," Williams said. "If she called and talked to him he would have done what we often do and worked it out."

But Otto, who is fighting cancer diagnosed in May while her husband fights cancer diagnosed in July 2019, did not know she had that option.

"It's kind of like I have to pick and choose my battles," Otto said.

The city issued about 12,000 notices of code violation last year, and about half of those were prompted by complaints from residents, Williams said. The other half were the result of code inspectors noticing violations while they were in the field, she said.

City ordinance requires that inspectors follow up on complaints, but inspectors do have some discretion in issuing notices of violation, Williams said. City Council member Darrin Ledford said he thinks the tornado-damaged areas in East Brainerd are exactly where that discretion should come into play.

"The city has been excellent in helping the tornado-stricken area, working with FEMA, so why we all of a sudden are kind of deciding now is the time to go in and [do] strict enforcement is a little bewildering to me," he said. "Everything out there needs to be treated with a little more sensitivity and a little more compassion right now."

(READ MORE: 'It's not been an easy journey': After Easter storms in Chattanooga area, recovery is slow and hurdles are high.)

Ledford said he has approached city leaders about easing off code enforcement in tornado-damaged areas, and that they have been open to amending the ordinance to create some leeway for residents of disaster-hit areas.

"The city is on board to help us create solutions instead of more problems for these folks," he said.

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Chattanooga code violations

On the night of the storm, Otto's husband was in the hospital recovering from surgery, and Otto was in her basement with a worker from an emergency water removal company she had called when she discovered flooding. The storm hit her house directly, and she spent the weeks and months following that harrowing night handling clean-up and the insurance payout, and trying to find a place she and her husband could live.

"I had to arrange everything," she said. "You have to make all these meetings and I don't know what I'm doing."

Her cancer diagnosis came the month after the tornado hit, and Otto had major surgery in June. Now she's working through a legal issue with the original city records defining her property line so she can sell the lot in Drake Forest and try to start over somewhere else — though that's easier said than done.

Houses are scarce, and she and her husband are buying a home in a new development in East Brainerd that hasn't yet been built.

"The best decision was to let it go and buy a home, but it's hard with the market the way it is," she said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.

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