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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Camelot Lane in East Brainerd was among the areas damaged by the Easter Sunday tornadoes on April 12, 2020.

One month. That's how long it's been since the sky opened up on that final 30 minutes of Easter Sunday and a funnel cloud seemingly engineered in Hades dropped down to leave much of East Brainerd in a state of postapocalyptic ruin.

Hard as it may be to believe, four weeks have come and gone since Susan Farley cracked opened the door of her family's safe room a few seconds after the tornado slammed into their Autumn Chase home and thought, "Everything I've ever had is lost."

Four weeks have passed since Tyner Academy principal Gerald Harris emerged from the crawl space beneath his family's severely damaged Drake Forest home to find the neighborhood's numerous large trees "all but gone. Just vanished. And trees were what always made this neighborhood feel special."

Four weeks are in the books since Girls Preparatory School swimming coach Roger Dahlke said of son Christian Mahanes' quick thinking to awaken the family and get them to a windowless room just as the tornado demolished their Autumn Chase home, "If it hadn't been for Christian, we'd have all been dead."

On a lighter note, Farley said on Friday, her observation surely seconded by the Harrises and the Dahlkes, "If I never see another piece of pink insulation, it will be too soon."

It has all been too much. Especially here in the Tennessee Valley. The coronavirus pandemic. The tornadoes that wreaked billions in damages. The windstorms and power outages since that Easter night.

But only the tornado victims have endured it all.

"You learn it's not a sprint but a marathon," Harris said. "We've had a damage assessment, but we haven't gotten the numbers back. We had some sentimental things damaged, but we've also saved a lot. We've been there 13 years. We love the community. However long it takes, we plan to rebuild."

There is nothing left of the Dahlke home to rebuild.

"The lot's been cleared," Roger said. "We've found temporary housing in Red Bank. We still own the property, but I think we'll probably buy or build somewhere else. I know that we plan to have a basement in the next home we own. We didn't in this one. Right now, we're just trying to inventory everything. We've filled 64 pages and probably have at least 40 more to go."

Susan and Scott Farley also don't expect to rebuild the house they called home for 18 years, even if it's the only one their daughters Caroline, 17, and Catherine, 14, have ever known.

"We've just signed a one-year lease on a house in The Meadows," Scott said of the development off Ooltewah-Ringgold Road. "We might wind up buying or building there, but we're not rebuilding. We're demoing what's left of the house this week."

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Staff photo by Mary Fortune / The view from Brock Road in East Brainerd of a hillside that was densely wooded before storms stripped the trees from the area on the night of April 12, 2020.

Both the Dahlkes and the Farleys feel blessed to have saved at least a few more sentimental items than they ever expected to see again.

"We had a file cabinet that was damaged, but the stuff inside, things like birth certificates and such, were just fine," Roger said. "Someone found a family photo of ours in Ooltewah and got it back to us. Amazing. Some things our children had made through the years — things like Mother's Day gifts that Christian and Lilly had made for Carrie — somehow survived. We're just trying to get through every day."

As for the Farleys, Scott found his high school letterman's jacket in a neighbor's tree and his 1986 McCallie diploma on the ground but badly damaged. McCallie is going to send him a new one, and he intends to frame both the torn original and the replacement side by side.

For Susan, one find stood above the rest.

"A pearl necklace," she said. "My father was from Iran, and he brought the necklace with him from there. My mother gave it to me on my wedding day. I didn't find it for two or three days, but it ended up being right by our bed amid some of the insulation."

In one of those odd truths about tornadoes, Susan also said, "We had Trivial Pursuit cards scattered all over the yard wrapped in wire and insulation and limbs. But our china and crystal didn't suffer a scratch."

The family's albums of baby pictures were also spared, as were Caroline's oboe and saxophone and Catherine's flute, which the sisters play in Ringgold High School's band program.

But as Susan, a teacher for 20 years at Graysville Elementary School, also said, "It's made me realize that everything we lost is just things."

She was amazed by the outpouring of support from their church, First-Centenary United Methodist, especially youth pastor Troy Hamilton, who hiked 1.5 miles through debris a few hours after the tornado hit to walk the Farleys' daughters to safety, then returned for Susan and Scott.

Said Harris, so thankful his wife Martina and daughters Taylor, Sydney and Tori are all safe for this Mother's Day: "We're doing good. We're moving into a (rental) house on Monday. It's just a miracle that we weren't hurt."

They are all educators — Scott Farley teaches at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School — working a new virtual education format. Although they haven't had classes on campus for weeks, in another month, school will be officially out. In four more months, COVID-19 willing, their lives may settle into some new normal that hopefully looks and feels at least a little like the old normal.

But now arrives Mother's Day and a chance to put at least some of what's happened the past two months on hold for a few hours.

"I think we all just want normalcy and safety again," Susan said. "But for Mother's Day, I just want my family to have a good day together and be happy for what we do have. Because if you have your family, nothing else matters."

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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