Mary Lou Brown, 66, considers herself fortunate. She survived a tornado Wednesday night that killed eight people in Catoosa County as it rolled over her neighborhood, demolished gas stations and fast-food diners in the city center, then wiped homes down to their foundations in a rural mountain valley.
She credits her father’s craftsmanship with saving her life. As she fled downstairs for protection, a large oak fell onto the wooden roof over her front porch, not far from where she had fled seeking safety.
“It’s a blessing. My daddy built me this house,” said Brown, who started crying. “If I had not had that porch on there, it just would have gone through and I would probably have been killed.”
With government officials occupied by search-and-rescue efforts, providing for the homeless and trying to re-establish power, Brown and her neighbors organized their own cleanup efforts. They marshaled volunteer chain saw crews to slice up felled trees in less-than-ideal circumstances. Parts of Ringgold still lack power. Police are blocking roads, making navigation difficult. Residents say opportunistic contractors are on the prowl, and there’s a shortage of heavy equipment.
President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for Catoosa and six other counties hit by the storm. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson planned to tour the area Saturday. Even with federal assistance, getting back to normal will take time and exhausting work.
Chain saws buzzed Friday and Saturday in nearly every pocket of town.
“Hey, any traffic coming?” shouted a man hoisted in a bucket truck over Brown’s porch. Told the road was clear, he sawed into a section of the oak tree, sending it crashing to her yard with a thud that shook the ground.
Jackie Blaylock, 48, was helping close friends saw down trees and burn wood in another hard-struck neighborhood. The tornado knocked one home off its foundation, wove a thick mat of tangled oak and pines across the yards and pulverized a shanty across the street. Wandering roosters perched on roadside debris.
After three days of work, the area was still a mess.
“We’ve had a lot of help,” Blaylock said. “Basically it’s just time and effort moving it.”
Insurance adjustors were being blocked from the downtown Friday, meaning potential delays for residents seeking money to rebuild. Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said he expects to gradually ease restrictions on getting into the city starting next week.
Uphill from Brown’s home, church volunteers were slicing through trees criss-crossing Norma Lambert’s front yard. Trees crashed onto her roof, ruptured a natural gas tank and blocked her doors as the home filled with gas. Her son helped her escape down a rear staircase. They crawled through a tangle of debris downhill to safety.
She’s been besieged by people seeking to profit from the storm. One company charged her $2,400 to remove a tree from her roof and patch the holes it inflicted with tarps. Lambert, 65, said she expects her insurance company will pay the bill.
About 30 volunteers mustered by the Poplar Springs Baptist Church helped Lambert and her husband saw through downed trees and stack the wood near the street. After that crew left, two members of a Tennessee church showed up to continue the work. Lambert said those were the only people who had offered to help and said the community needs more assistance.
“We’re on our own, totally on our own,” she said.
Those who escaped unscathed tried to help the less fortunate. Mike and Diedra Smith drove to a friend’s quilting store to cart away bolts of fabric, furniture and anything else that could be salvaged. The tornado collapsed part of the roof, blew out the walls and propelled insulation, wood and other debris into nearby trees.
Diedra Smith kept warning her husband not to brush against the remaining wood columns supporting the ceiling.
“You can tell at some point the whole roof is going to come down,” she said.