published Monday, May 9th, 2011

Cook: Tornadoes can come in different shapes

On Wednesday, April 27, as the last wave of the Three Hundred Tornado Storm shook the Chattanooga night, another tornado of sorts struck.

Not long before midnight, Timothy Rudolph, a goateed 24-year-old, was pedaling his bicycle north on Dodds Avenue when he was T-boned by a man steering his SUV in a turn. The driver fled, according to police, who also — shortly after the accident — arrested him on charges of driving while intoxicated.

His wrecked bicycle nearby, Rudolph — who had struggled with homelessness — lay under the night sky as the storms unloaded lightning, thunder and wind in the heavens above him and ambulance sirens grew closer.

As his brother rushed down from the Bronx, Rudolph was in critical condition. A few days later, as thousands of people began cleaning up from the wreckage left behind from the tornadoes, he died.

It seems it was a hard end to a very hard life.

“His whole life was a tornado,” said Brother Ron Fender, Rudolph’s case manager at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. “Everywhere he went, he saw destruction.”

In the last two weeks, we have seen a century’s share of destruction.

Yet in the days after the Three Hundred Tornado Storm, Chattanoogans have reached out to those in need with selflessness, courage and overwhelming kindness. Their stories outnumber the stories of twister destruction a hundred to one.

As it should be.

Can you imagine, instead, if our city had responded to such tornado-destruction by turning our backs? No food drives. No donations. No prayer groups.

Nothing but silence.

We shudder at such an idea. From neighbors to strangers, we are built to take care of one another. Our noble response to the storm proves this.

What if our taxes could do the same?

This month, a decades-long agreement between city and county governments to split revenue earned from sales taxes likely will dissolve. In April, the City Council voted to allow the agreement to lapse, which would stop transfer of $10.5 million in sales tax revenue from the city to the county. At risk of losing funding is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, according to County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

And this means more tornadoes — like the kind Rudolph endured for so much of his life — will continue to strike the homeless and working poor of Chattanooga.

“We just had a woman come in for help who’s been sleeping with her four children in a car,” said Karen Guinn, project director of Chattanooga’s Homeless Health Care Center, which received $566,000 last year in county funds. “They’d been camping out in their car for three weeks.”

On East 11th Street, the care center is often the most important place in Chattanooga for the homeless community.

“We help people get apartments, jobs, photo IDs and Social Security cards,” said Guinn. “We help prevent heart attacks and chronic disease. We see people with colds, wounds and acute illnesses. We stabilize their condition and keep them out of the hospital.”

The list goes on: preventive care, chronic disease needs, medical resources, case management, substance abuse counseling, food, clothing, shelter and any other basic need.

If such resources are dismantled, folks normally visiting the center needing medicine or aid will now turn to emergency rooms across the city. Uninsured, they will have no way to pay their bills.

Which means taxpayers will.

“In 2010, we saw 3,681 individuals and over 23,000 visits,” said Guinn. “Fifty-four percent of them were women and children, and 97 percent of them all had local addresses.”

Perhaps there are more storms and tornadoes in our city than we may realize.

If we responded so rapidly — without second thought — to those hurt by the tornadoes, could we also not see our taxes being used in such a saving way as well?

What if, instead of arguing over ending the sales tax agreement, why not argue over who gets the honor, privilege and blessing of funding the Homeless Health Care Clinic?

What would happen if we viewed part of our tax bill as a first-responder, a lifeline to families sleeping in their cars, or individuals drowning from too many days of storm?

Like Tim Rudolph. For five years, he had been coming to the Kitchen. Fender remembers him saying one thing over and over.

“He would always say, ‘I just don’t know what to do,’” Fender remembers. “He cried that question out to the world.”

I believe we in Chattanooga have a response.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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