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A home in the Holly Hills subdivision shows how little progress has been made five months after the Easter 2020 tornado. Many residents are struggling to get insurance assistance and recovery aide to repair damaged or destroyed homes. / Staff photo by Sarah Grace Taylor

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, to correct the estimated storm damage in Hamilton County and the insurance claims paid so far.

When a 1,500-yard-wide tornado tore through the Chattanooga area just before midnight on Easter, thousands of buildings were devoured in a matter of minutes, leaving locals to rebuild their homes and lives.

Now, five months after the 145 mph winds of the EF3 tornado battered the area, some individuals are still fighting for relief from the financial impact of the storm week.

Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley — who represents Ooltewah, Collegedale and other affected areas — and Chattanooga Councilman Darrin Ledford — who represents some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods — drew attention to the remaining damage in their districts and surrounding areas, highlighting the obstacles many of their constituents were facing while trying to rebuild.

"I just can't believe the devastation that's still there," Smedley told the Times Free Press on Friday. "It's almost hard to even drive around that area. In some ways, it looks worse now than it did in April."

Smedley has been working toward tornado relief since the night it happened, helping canvass neighborhoods to assess the damage and later helping connect residents with recovery resources.

Still, she says the community is just scratching the surface of rebuilding.

"This is going to take years," she said. "Especially for those who aren't getting the help they need."

Smedley remembers trekking through neighborhoods with a number of organizations and volunteers after the storm to document the scale of the damage but says there is no way to be certain exactly who was affected or what help they need. And the problem was exacerbated by the prevalence of the deadly COVID-19 virus, which separated victims even further.

With individual needs unknown, Smedley fears that some locals may slip through the cracks as insurance companies under-compensate or completely drop homeowners.

Cheryll Smith, 79, of Holly Hills, says she is one of those homeowners.

"I remember I was watching the weather, and when I saw that red area, I knew it was us, I knew it was Holly Hills," said Smith, who still lives in the home she purchased with her late husband 50 years ago. "I got in a little coat closet, and I listened to what sounded like debris hitting on all sides."

Smith said she never feared because the tornado happened so quickly and she knew what it was.

"But it wasn't until daylight that I knew the extent of the damage," she said.

While she is thankful that she, unlike many of her neighbors, didn't lose her entire home, Smith says she lost nearly all of her windows, suffered significant roof damage and had other exterior damage.

When her insurance company arrived to survey the damage, Smith says she wasn't allowed to follow the assessor due to COVID-19. Then, when she received a payment from the company — which she had been paying for five decades — it was not nearly enough to cover her repairs.

"I said 'well that's not right,' and I tried to get a second assessment, but I couldn't get them out there," she said. "They told me to find a contractor and when I finally did they told me they couldn't do it for the amount I was given. They'd be in the negative."

Smith has since gotten a public appraiser to assess the damage, and was given an estimate well over double the amount she was quoted by the insurance company and filed a complaint with the state's Department of Commerce and Insurance.

She was also dropped by her insurance company on Saturday after a month's notice.

"I'm not one to complain, but I watched the house next to me get entirely rebuilt, and I still have boarded-up windows and can only use half of my house," Smith said. "But I also know I am not the only one in my neighborhood facing the same issues with insurance or contractors."

According to numbers provided to Smedley and other elected officials by the Department of Commerce and Insurance this week, Hamilton County incurred just shy of $420 million in damage during the storm and some $330 million has been paid.

Of the 12,557 claims reported in the county, 7,784 have been closed with some payment and 2,153 have been closed without any payment.

Seventeen people in the county have filed complaints with the state against their insurance companies for claim delays, claim denials, unsatisfactory settlement offers or adjustor handling. Of those, one was overturned, seven resulted in compromised settlements, two claims were settled and on seven occasions the company's position was substantiated.

"We know that there are a lot of people who need help still because they either aren't going to get it or they aren't getting it quickly," Smedley said. "We don't have a master list to contact everyone, so we need to get the word out to connect people with resources."

Smedley and Ledford held a news conference this week encouraging those with recovery needs to contact the United Way of Greater Chattanooga to be connected with one of the several volunteer and nonprofit organizations willing to build or repair homes for victims.

"Nobody will be turned away, and there's a tremendous amount of help still being offered," Ledford said during Tuesday's council meeting.

To contact the United Way, residents are asked to dial 211 or 866-921-3035. Text your zip code to 898-211 to start a text chat or email 211staff@uwchatt.org.

"They did ask that people be patient, because there's limited staff," Smedley noted. "But we are going to make sure we help anyone that we can."

Sarah Grace Taylor can be reached at staylor@timesfreepress.com.

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