"You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. ... Up, down, up, down, oh, what a ride! ... I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, so thrilled all together! Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it."
Our favorite quote from one of our favorite movies, "Parenthood" (1989), describes life in Chattanooga these days as the city recovers from a devastating tornado and takes tentative first steps out from stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, those steps were on display in Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's "State of the City" address, in the Hamilton County school board's budget discussion and also in the neighborhoods where an Easter evening twister changed life as residents knew it.
"These last few weeks I have been reminded, over and over again, of the great faithfulness of this community," the mayor said, delivering his address remotely rather than in front of a usual audience of well-wishers. "We have experienced our own form of fire and earthquake. We have certainly experienced the wind. And yet, we have found, Chattanooga is not in the storm. Chattanooga, our true character, is in the still, small voice that sends us to work when the storm is passed."
Weeks ago, the term-limited Berke was set to finish his final year in office on a high note. Business was humming, the city coffers were full and some of the most difficult decisions were which of the many streets that needed repaving would be resurfaced.
Forbes, in December, had predicted Chattanooga would be the nation's hiring capital. Now, with virus stay-at-home orders, tens of thousands are out of work.
Nevertheless, as Berke said, "by pushing coding initiatives, health care paths and robotics training, we can help under-unemployed residents move into growing, critical industries that have existing needs and middle-class pay." And with that the roller coaster has a chance to ascend again.
Meanwhile, the school board embraced the reality of the roller coaster descent, cutting $4 million from its original $420 million fiscal 2021 budget proposal and realizing there likely will be little projected increase from property or sales tax revenues. Gone was any discussion of the 10-year master plan that had been presented to the public and the board by MGT Consulting Group in late winter.
Part of the cuts were eliminating the teachers' annual step pay increases. We, like board members Kathy Lennon and Jenny Hill, wish there had been additional other places to cut rather than teacher pay since the state and county have been trying to get pay in line with neighboring Tennessee or Georgia counties.
But, as Chief Business Office Brent Goldberg pointed out, and as was the case this fiscal year when teachers got middle-of-the-year increases, the board can always amend the budget if revenue does become available.
In East Brainerd, where the school board must deal with $18 million in tornado damage to East Brainerd Elementary School, residents are making plans for the future.
We have been especially encouraged by the spirit of homeowners shown on the community Facebook site of Holly Hills, one of the most savagely damaged neighborhoods in the storm.
Not only have neighbors shared with neighbors who need specific help the names of roofers, contractors, cleanup crews and debris haulers, but they have been remarkably resilient — even with roofs gone and second stories shorn away — about the heart and character of a neighborhood.
"I've never loved Holly Hills more than right now," said resident Tim White, discussing residents' desire to rebuild its shattered community pool area. "If we work together, we progress so much faster."
Even as excavators leveled houses that cannot be rebuilt, others cited the neighborhood's location, convenience, brick homes and community appeal as reasons for staying.
"Yes, it will take a while for the trees to grow back," wrote Sherry Harvey Poole, "it will take some time to rebuild, but I hope the families that owned homes here will be able to stay."
The mayor, school board members and tornado-ravaged residents — all Chattanooga and Hamilton County residents, really — understand and acknowledge the roller coaster character of life.
"Our future is not in the storm," Berke said Thursday, concluding his remarks. "It is not in the locked door. Our future, if we are brave enough to listen, is in the still small voice that asks us: What are we doing here? And then, the voice that answers within us: I am doing the next thing, whatever that is before me, to help my neighbor, my street, and my community to be the best Chattanooga yet."
That's what we're all doing here.