published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Tornado tears apart sheriff’s house, but not his spirit

Minutes after an EF3 tornado tore down the side of Sand Mountain and through the small town of Trenton, Sheriff Patrick Cannon answered a phone call from a hysterical family member.

“Where are your kids? Where are your kids?” the caller screamed. Cannon assured the person that his four children — ages 6, 10, 14 and 16 — and wife were with him.

The next words he heard were, “Your house is gone.”

“I didn’t even care,” Cannon said. “I was more worried about my family and my neighbors.”

Thirteen minutes earlier, Cannon had finally reached his wife, Emily, on the phone after many unsuccessful calls. A storm was about to hit their home on Sand Mountain, he told her. She needed to leave now. She had three of the children; one was with Cannon.

She drove the six miles of winding mountainous roads from the top of Sand Mountain to Trenton in 13 minutes, arriving at the sheriff’s department just as the storm hit. Not a single wall in their home was left standing. Most of their belongings were smashed into the woods more than 50 yards across the road.

“There is no way they would be alive if they had been in here,” Cannon said.

Cannon’s 90-year-old grandmother, who lived just up the hill from the family; his mother across the Alabama line; and his neighbors with three small children were all unhurt, Cannon was eventually able to find out.

Two days later, on Friday, Cannon met with his insurance agent to assess the damage. In the whirlwind of a week since the storm hit, he hasn’t had time to recover anything from his house or his barn. It was Sunday before he took the time to even visit his home.

Instead, his focus has been helping the hundreds of Dade County residents struggling to cope with the worst storm most people can remember. The first five days, he averaged an hour of sleep a night, as he and his deputies conducted house-to-house searches in the rural areas of Sand Mountain.

The tornado tracked down one ridge and up the other side, leaving a swath of snapped trees and devastated homes, before it hit Trenton.

“My guys have been wonderful,” Cannon said. “This is not about me — the whole community stepped up and did what they needed to do. We came together as a team and handled it.”

Even though Cannon has not had time to clean up his own home, members of his church and friends picked up all the things of sentimental value they could find and stored them for the family, he said.

One lady drove to Chattanooga to buy him two pairs of law enforcement pants and ordered shirts for him, since he had no clothes except what he was wearing that night.

It hurts to lose some things — his grandpa’s 1905 banjo and a 1950s F6 Ford truck he had almost finished restoring, Cannon said. But everything else is just stuff.

“I’m truly, truly thankful,” Cannon said. “This material stuff can be replaced, but our hearts go out to all the people who lost friends and family. A lot of lives were taken.”

He gestured toward the piles of lumber, tin and siding mixed in with bits of furniture.

“Nothing in there is worth a life,” he said. “I can’t begin to explain how overwhelming everyone’s response has been. We truly live in the best county in the state of Georgia.”

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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