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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd/ Tyner Academy principal Gerald Harris is thankful for the support he and his family have received since their home was damaged by the outbreak of tornadoes that hit the Chattanooga area on Sunday night.

Brad Jackson was the first to reach 2264 Tristram Road on Friday afternoon, deftly making his way through the fallen trees, downed power lines and broken glass that have overwhelmed the Drake Forest subdivision off Shallowford Road since last Sunday night, when tornadoes touched down around the Chattanooga area.

Jackson, campus support specialist for Hamilton County Schools, brought a chainsaw, a can of gas and a sympathetic smile to the battered home of his good friend Gerald Harris, the former Tyner and Middle Tennessee State University basketball great who is now the principal at his high school alma mater.

Soddy-Daisy principal Steve Henry arrived a few minutes later pulling a trailer to help carry some of the Harris family's possessions to a safer locale. He was soon joined by Soddy-Daisy assistant principal Jennifer "Curly" Williams, longtime Hamilton County educator Ernie McCarson and others. Harris's friend Bruce Suttles and his son Elijah, a sophomore at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences, also joined in.

All of them greeted Harris and his family with a single six-word question: "What can we do to help?"

Said Harris through the face mask he wore as a precaution against COVID-19: "It's been like this all week. Every 30 or 40 minutes, someone's stopped by to offer water or food. Redemption Point sent nine guys over here to cut up trees, and we had 10 big ones that had to be removed. The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming."

It is a scene of both hope and horror that is being replayed daily across all of East Brainerd, parts of Cleveland and much of Murray County, Georgia. The losses are catastrophic, leaving mouths open and causing eyes to water. There are literally miles of nearly total devastation to homes and businesses and, in too many cases, lives.

"I remember driving through Ringgold and Apison after the 2011 tornadoes and thinking 'This is the worst thing I've ever seen,'" Jackson said. "I'm not sure this isn't worse."

It is at least marginally worse because it has piggybacked the coronavirus pandemic. How do you keep six feet of social distance — "My wife says it should be 10 (feet)," Jackson noted — when trying to help carry a 30-inch-wide chair out of a severely damaged home? How do you help cut down a tree if you can't stand close enough to the man with the chainsaw to guide it?

Most everyone you see is trying so hard to follow all the best-practice guidelines, but what if protecting yourself from COVID-19 interferes with helping those who need help overcoming Mother Nature's wrath?

"Gerald's like family," Henry said, as if to dismiss any coronavirus concerns. "Of course we were going to help."

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Staff photo / Gerald Harris coaches the Tyner boys' basketball team during a timeout in a game at Howard on Jan. 22, 2009.

Younger family members may be why Harris, his wife Martina and daughter Tori are alive today. It is certainly why Girls Preparatory School swimming coach Roger Dahlke, his wife Carrie, son Christian Mahanes and daughter Lily Mahanes are still on this earth.

Regarding the Harris clan, Gerald and Martina were in their master bedroom a few minutes before 11:30 when their middle daughter Sydney called to say there was a tornado headed directly their way.

Grabbing 21-year-old daughter Tori, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior, and heading for a crawl space under their garage, the Harrises made it to safety just in time.

"We're so lucky Sydney called," Gerald said. "In the end, the house is still standing. We lost the roof, but it can be fixed. But we got to that crawl space with less than a minute to spare."

The Dahlke family home in the Autumn Chase subdivision near Standifer Gap Road wasn't so fortunate. And had 16-year-old Christian not been watching the weather, well, "We'd have all been dead," Roger said.

Indeed, everyone else in the family was either asleep or about to go to sleep when Christian, watching the weather updates on television, herded them toward their safe space.

Unfortunately, Roger, who was holding the family's two dogs, couldn't get the door closed to that space before the tornado roared through the front door.

"By the time I get to our safe place, the house is coming apart," he recalled Saturday morning. "The dogs broke loose. I just fell on top of my family and prayed."

Within seconds, the Dahlke family home was flattened and the dogs Heidi and Blue and Lucy the cat had all three vanished.

"It was like the tornado went through our front door and out our backdoor," he said. "The house behind us is still being lived in. The houses on either side of us were damaged but can be repaired. Our home is gone. But there are so many people in our neighborhood in the same boat as us. We're just happy to be alive and overwhelmed by the support."

And for all they've lost, there is a semi-happy ending for their pets. On Wednesday morning, a faint sound of life could be heard beneath the rubble. Some 5 1/2 hours later, after an intense rescue mission by several employees from Nissan East who had originally come by to help with the family's cars, Heidi was found alive. Blue was not so lucky. Lucy remains missing.

"I hadn't been able to sleep for three nights because of the dogs," Dahlke said. "They were in my arms, and then they were gone. But other than being a little shook up, Heidi's fine. And we still hope Lucy comes back."

Early Friday afternoon, his Drake Forest neighborhood filled with dump trucks, bulldozers, utility trucks and dozens of volunteers, Harris looked around at the unthinkable devastation, including a neighbor's large RV that had been tossed into another neighbor's swimming pool two houses away, and said, "It's unfortunate. It's horrible, really. But nobody in our neighborhood died, so it's also a miracle."

Because when you still have your family, having nothing left can still mean having everything that's important.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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