published Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Community copes with storm

Severe storms pummeled the St. Elmo area of Chattanooga, Tenn., Wednesday, leaving buildings damaged and trees down. Robert Pettit, 10, was asleep in his bunk bed when an enormous tree crashed into his room. His father Richard said they're blessed Robert made it. The boy's bed used to be on the side of the bedroom the tree destroyed, but it was moved about a week ago during redecorating. The tree took out the front three rooms of the house.
Staff Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Severe storms pummeled the St. Elmo area of Chattanooga, Tenn., Wednesday, leaving buildings damaged and trees down. Robert Pettit, 10, was asleep in his bunk bed when an enormous tree crashed into his room. His father Richard said they're blessed Robert made it. The boy's bed used to be on the side of the bedroom the tree destroyed, but it was moved about a week ago during redecorating. The tree took out the front three rooms of the house. Staff Photo by Tracey Trumbull/Chattanooga Times Free Press

ST. ELMO

Ten-year-old Robert Pettit was all alone when he woke to a tree smashing away the front wall of his bedroom.

His mother, Marcie, burst into the room and immediately panicked — the tree was right where her son’s bed used to be in their Ochs Highway house.

“It coulda crushed me,” Robert said.

Robert’s room had been redecorated a week ago, and his bunk bed was moved from the front wall to the back, likely saving his life.

Overcoming her shock, Marcie Pettit grabbed her son and rushed him to the basement — which also doubles as the Pettit House bed-and-breakfast — to join his siblings.

Hours later, Robert ran around the front yard, playing with his friends during the storm’s lull Wednesday afternoon. Family members and students from nearby Chattanooga Christian School all pitched in to secure whatever belongings they could before Round 2 of the storm struck about 2:30 p.m., but Robert said it was hard to look at his damaged home.

“It’s horrible, gosh,” he said quietly.

And he probably doesn’t know the half of it. His family runs a bed and breakfast out of their home, and with limited business insurance, they stand to lose a good deal of money.

Members of the extended Pettit family live in three other nearby houses, two of which also sustained tree damage.

But Robert’s dad, Richard, wasn’t thinking about repairs. He was glad his son made it through the storm and grateful for the help with repairs.

“We’re blessed. Luck had nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s always the times when something bad happens you find out so much that’s good about people.”

— By Staff Writer Carey O’Neil

ST. ELMO

Lori Bell was practically running in and out of her house on Alabama Avenue, trying to move everything in her study to safety during the lull between storms.

Items in her bedroom were just going to have to take water damage, she decided, since there was no way to get past the enormous tree that split her home in two.

“Everybody’s safe, and that’s the most important part,” she said.

Her bed could barely be seen through the mess of branches and leaves that crashed down Wednesday morning, destroying the dressing room that connected the bedroom to the study and the rest of the house.

“It wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be,” she said. “I took a look and was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a tree in my house.’”

Luckily, Bell’s home was insured, as was the home of her neighbor Carlos Garcia.

A tree crashed onto his roof, crushing some walls and ceilings and thrusting its branches down into the house.

“It came through like daggers,” he said.

Garcia, the men’s tennis coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was at work when the tree toppled. Had he been home asleep, a sharp branch would have stopped at just about his chest.

He stood outside his house. looking at the tree in disbelief while waiting for a person to come help take it down. He wanted to get as much work done and as many tarps up as possible before the storm hit again in the afternoon.

“We’re just trying to do some cleanup as quick as we can,” he said. “The rain’s going to come through like a waterfall.”

— By Staff Writer Carey O’Neil

CHATTANOOGA

With the power out at the Walgreens on Broad Street, store manager Curtis Haman was dealing with a medical emergency — how to save the pharmacy’s supply of insulin.

“If it reaches over 47 degrees for more than 30 minutes, it has to be used within 28 days,” he said. “If we have to shut down for over 12 hours, everything will go bad.”

Haman put the insulin on ice, trying to preserve it.

But the store was still open for business, doing brisk sales on weather radios, batteries, flashlights and cigarettes.

The power went out about 9:30 a.m. and came up a little after 1 p.m., but Haman was still worried, figuring the storms expected later in the day would knock out the power again.

— By Staff Writer Perla Trevizo

CHATTANOOGA

“Car versus tree” and “tree versus house” were two popular phrases at Chattanooga’s largest hospital during Wednesday’s storms.

“Two adults came in because trees fell into their homes,” said Erlanger Health System spokeswoman Jennifer Homa.

Others came in after being hurt when trees hit their cars, she said. At 4:30 p.m., seven people had been admitted to Erlanger with “weather-related injuries,” she said. A brick wall fell on one of the adults, and another was tossed by high winds, she said, but most of the injuries were minor.

Homa said one child was admitted to the hospital’s downtown campus “due to the storm.” She didn’t have injury details, but said the child is in stable condition.

— By Staff Writer Chris Carroll

CHATTANOOGA

As the skies began to clear Wednesday morning, Chattanooga residents off Germantown Road began peeking out the windows and walking around their property to inspect the damage.

In sweats and a T-shirt, Travis Fillar stood in his front yard on Nye Drive, staring at the tree that had just minutes ago uprooted from the ground and now covered the road.

“I was just thinking about putting a tree swing on there,” he said.

More neighbors gathered nearby to gaze at two 200-year-old oak trees that had fallen and just barely missed another neighbor’s two-story home.

“I’m tired of this,” said Elanor Gass from the street as she walked her dog.

When Gass heard the sound of wind rushing toward her house early Wednesday morning, she said she grabbed her dog Roofus and hid in the hall. But her home, located across the street from the two oak trees that fell, came through unscathed.

— By Staff Writer Joy Lukachick

CHATTANOOGA

Don Morris was seated at a table in the front of his Highland Park early Wednesday when high winds uprooted a large tree in his front yard, tipping it onto and through his house.

The falling tree also brought down power lines at the corner of Union Avenue and South Hickory.

Morris, an employee of Covenant College, said he could hear the strong wind when “a tree came through, penetrating my house. I’m sitting under a tree. I feel like God spared my life,” he said.

Morris said he had “tree branches on both floors of his house,” which he was documenting with digital pictures in preparation for insurance claims.

— By Staff Writer Susan Pierce

HIXSON

Doug Anderson was shopping in the Highway 153 Walmart when the massive storm roared through north Hixson. For safety’s sake, employees shuffled him and other shoppers to the center of the store.

But when Anderson arrived home on Kingsridge Drive, he discovered that his 90-year-old house hadn’t been so fortunate.

Every tree in his yard was twisted into a giant heap and sitting on the roof of the home where he grew up and still lives.

“I’m alive,” the 65-year-old Anderson said from his back porch several hours after the first storm hit. “I wasn’t here when it happened, so God protected me.”

After the first surge of thunderstorms passed Wednesday morning, residents in neighborhoods off Highway 153 in the north Hixson area said they believed a tornado had touched down, taking out trees and electrical wires in a neat path.

“It was here, then danced around and left,” said Karen Smith, who lives on Winding Hills Lane.

Smith said that when she saw the funnel headed down the street, she grabbed her 3-year-old son and covered him up under the bed.

The wind roared and sounded like a washing machine off balance, but 10 times louder, she said.

Tree roots were twisted from the dirt, and oak trees more than 100 years old were ripped from the ground.

The destruction stretched near Highway 153 for several miles, with some of the worst damage between Gadd Road and Winding Hills Lane.

— By Staff Writer Joy Lukachick

NORTH CHATTANOOGA

Philip Lindsey’s trees must have something against his neighbor.

When a tornado ripped through the Chattanooga area in February, one tree fell and damaged Lindsey’s neighbor’s fence. Wednesday morning, while he and his neighbor were at work, the trees went for a bigger target, piercing a baseball-sized hole in his neighbor’s roof.

“I’m just glad it happened when it did,” Lindsay said, looking towards his driveway. “My car’s usually parked there.”

Lindsey, who bought his Dugdale Street house about a year ago, and his neighbor can chuckle about the repeat assaults the trees made against the next-door property. Both are insured and no one was hurt, but the storm wasn’t without cost.

“One of the things I liked about the street was all the trees, and now they’re all gone,” he said.

Lindsey wasn’t the only North Chattanooga resident to pine for the lost trees.

Ronda VanBilliard bought her Beck Avenue home in 2002 after she fell in love with the property’s giant white oak.

“That was my favorite tree,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’m just really upset about it.”

Luckily no one was hurt when the tree fell, though it did completely block the road and pull down telephone poles.

“People would come for miles to see it,” she said. “It was just very majestic.”

— By Staff Writer Carey O’Neil

RED BANK

The smell of pine wafted over Ely Road in Red Bank as electric companies, homeowners and tree companies struggled Wednesday evening to clear dozens of trees splintered by heavy winds.

Rose Harwood, 92, said she had been sitting in a chair at her window on Forest Glen Drive when she heard a rushing sound outside. She had just ducked into a clothes closet when she heard a loud “zing.” The winds shattered all her front windows.

“Glass covered the chair I had been sitting in,” she said.

Her neighbors, Frank and Carolyn Thomas, helped her leave the home and clean up the glass. The three and about a dozen others from the neighborhood spent the remainder of the day taking cover in the Thomases’ basement.

“We’ve been here 39 years,” Frank Thomas said. “We’ve never, ever seen anything this bad.”

Throughout Red Bank, lines were down and power was out to homes, businesses and traffic signals.

The city was still recovering from a series of tornadoes that pummeled the area at the end of February.

“We’ve got a mess,” said Tim Bass, who was clearing trees along Ely Road. “It was already a mess. Now it’s just a much bigger mess.”

— By Staff Writer Kate Harrison

EAST RIDGE

As power vanished and rain battered East Ridge High School, students were hustled to the ground floor of a windowless hallway where they sat waiting for the danger to pass.

“It wasn’t too scary. The teachers were all pretty calm, and we didn’t hear anything,” said senior Kelli Silvers. “As far as sitting in the hall for 45 minutes goes, it was pretty good.”

Once the morning round of storms passed, class was dismissed at all Hamilton County schools at 11 a.m.

School system spokeswoman Danielle Clark said it was up to each school’s principal whether to implement tornado policy and, since no students or staff were injured, they all handled their schools well.

“As soon as the warning was issued, they took care of business,” she said.

Each school holds tornado drills at the beginning, middle and end of the school year, making them well-prepared when tornadoes actually hit, Clark said.

“We space them out to make sure the kids and staff know what to do and our schools do an excellent job of that,” she said. “Our principals are really cautious and they do an outstanding job of it.”

— By Staff Writer Carey O’Neil

BRADLEY COUNTY

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Luane Haney heard the pine tree splitting her roof.

“I heard the tree come through the roof, and then the others went,” she said Wednesday after the early morning storms had passed. “It happened in just a breath of time. The whole house shook.”

Haney was looking at the punctured roof of her Georgetown Circle home and hoping help would arrive in time to cover it before follow-up rains and storms rolled through.

She was relieved to see her cat — a dazed-looking Nickers — wandering through the tree limbs.

Her neighbors around Georgetown Circle had stories of their own.

Randy Bienvenu, a Cleveland firefighter, was home when the storm raged. Afterward he walked each street, looking for neighbors who might need help. He didn’t find anyone who was injured.

“The warnings were out, and we knew it was getting closer,” Bienvenu said. “All of a sudden there was a huge burst of wind. It was a short, quick burst of wind.”

— By Staff Writer Randall Higgins

TRENTON, Ga.

Minutes after the Wednesday’s storm hit homes, apartments and buildings and the torrent of rain lessened, residents streamed north, frantically looking for shelter and help. Some wore muddy, wet T-shirts; others had blood running down their arms and legs.

Some carried dogs or other pets; some hugged their children close as they ran.

One woman ran up to a friend and hugged her fiercely as tears flowed down her face.

“It is all gone, everything,” she sobbed. “I can’t find my cat. They won’t let me go back to get MeeMaw’s insulin.”

The storm hit just before 5 p.m., and downed power lines and trees hampered rescue efforts. The sound of hissing could be heard in the distance and the reeking, sulfurous smell of gas permeated the rubble.

Rescuers tried to clear the area because of the gas, yelling at people to get away, but they were besieged by survivors seeking news about family and friends.

Firefighters triaged the injured on Main Street and divided up search areas into street-by-street grids.

The worst hit areas were along Main Street and south of state Highway 136. A triage area and shelter was set up at Trenton First Baptist Church, located just north of the worst-hit area.

About 550 people took shelter in the church throughout Wednesday evening. The church did not have electricity so volunteers lit candles and handed out lemonade and sandwiches.

Though the Dade County Jail was without power, deputies said many people were coming to the facility to seek shelter as the next wave of storms passed over.

“It’s safer than a lot of other places right now,” one deputy said.

— By Staff Writer Mariann Martin

MEIGS COUNTY

Buddy and Penny George were at their trailer when they noticed dark clouds, and insulation and siding falling from the sky.

“It was time to go,” said Buddy George, who took his family to a shelter at the Church of Christ off Hwy 58.

The family said they had never seen a weather pattern quite like the one on display Wednesday.

“It was crazy,” said daughter Brandi, as she thumbed through cell phone photos of the clouds. “It’s been pretty, then when storms come it gets black.”

The family said they were going to try to go back to their trailer overnight if the storms subsided.

— By Staff Writer Andy Johns

McMINN COUNTY

While the threat of bad weather forced some to take refuge inside of the Etowah City Hall, sever weather passed McMinn County with only minor damage.

McMinn County 911 dispatchers said as of 4 p.m. they had only received a few calls for fallen trees.

In Etowah, City Manager Matthew Gravely said the mountains kept the bad weather “pushed back.”

“It looked real bad for a while but the bad weather missed us,” he said.

Athens Police Chief Chuck Ziegler said the city had some heavy rains but only minor damage.

“We had lightning strike a tree and damage some houses,” Ziegler said. “Otherwise we had no other real damage.”

— By Correspondent Jeremy Belk

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