In one day, their lives changed forever.
Dozens of tornadoes ripped across the tri-state area on April 27, paralyzing and dazing the entire region. In the weeks that followed, the devastation touched everyone, from the people directly in the paths of the storms to the volunteers involved in the recovery.
The destruction was overwhelming, a magnitude of tragedy never seen before in the tri-state region. Eighty-one people killed, hundreds of homes splintered and thousands more damaged. Businesses wiped out. Billions of dollars in damage. A lifetime of hopes and dreams gone.
Slowly, life returned to normal. The power came back on, and people returned to work. Tree branches were cleaned up and strewn leaves were raked away.
Life as usual -- except for the people who lost homes and families and the volunteers who still return to the disaster areas every day.
Six months later, these people wake up every day to reality -- splintered trees that have yet to be removed, travel-trailer homes, pain from the loss of loved ones who were killed and fragmented lives. In the barren landscape, where tattered trees sprout a few leaves, it is difficult to tell if the leaves are dead or simply changing color.
And every day, people slog through the long and painful process of rebuilding their lives -- cleanup crews, lumber orders, house plans and insurance claims.
"The uncertainty is the hardest thing," said Larry Parham, whose home and furniture shop were destroyed in rural DeKalb County, Ala. "There is no routine. Everything has changed. It is the most difficult and tragic thing I've gone through."
But recovery has marched on -- sometimes slowly but steadily -- and amid the uncertainty, there is hope.
Most of the debris has been cleaned up. A few people -- but only a few -- out of hundreds who lost their homes are back in permanent homes. Some have moved into mobile homes where their houses once stood.
Hundreds more are in various stages of pouring house foundations, plastering drywall and choosing paint, counting the days until they can move furniture into their new homes.
But in other places, all that marks the spot where a home once stood is a concrete slab or a few cinderblocks. Some say they don't plan to rebuild, haunted by memories of the disaster. Others are still waiting for money from disaster funds, insurance payments or volunteers to help.
Those affected by the storms and people involved in recovery efforts say, for the most part, they think recovery and rebuilding are going well. It will take years for permanence to return and decades before the storm tracks are obliterated by growing trees, but six months has brought them a long way.
Every disaster is different, so it is hard to evaluate recovery in comparison, said the Rev. Fergie Horvath, who has brought volunteer teams to Alabama three times since the April storms. From her home in Spartanburg, S.C., Horvath also has helped with disasters in other states, including Hurricane Katrina.
"This area is more rural and the damage is so widespread, you sometimes don't realize just how much damage there is," she said. "But everyone here is so independent -- they are taking their recovery into their own hands."
Larry Parham left home to charge his cell phone the night of April 27, after earlier storms wiped out electricity in most of DeKalb County.
When he returned and parked his white truck in front of his furniture shop, he could see the storm eating up County Road 739.
"I could hear something like I'd never heard before. Trees were coming out of the ground," he said. He huddled in the truck, with no time to run to a better shelter.
In minutes, the tornado roared past, and Parham climbed out of the now-battered truck with shattered windows.
His furniture shop was gone, including several carefully crafted Chippendale-style clocks worth $10,000 each. His nearby house that he had built -- Mediterranean-style with tile floors and a fireplace -- was beyond repair. Six months later, the only thing left of the house is salvaged trusses stacked on the tile floors and the fireplace, waiting for the day when he is ready to rebuild.
Every home along his stretch of the road was damaged or destroyed. Across the street, his next-door neighbors were killed. Altogether, 35 people died in DeKalb County from the tornadoes or storm-related events.
The county had seven tornadoes that day, including a long-track EF5 with winds topping 260 mph that ripped bark from trees and pulled an 800-pound safe from its anchors and tossed it 600 feet into the woods.
Acres and acres of trees surrounding Parham's home are gone, save for a few straggling gum trees. Six months later, the debris is gone but the land still looks like a moonscape, miles and miles raked clean by the wicked wind.
With the help of family and friends, Parham rebuilt his furniture shop and found his scattered, damaged woodworking tools.
At first, the Parhams lived in a travel trailer on their property. Several weeks ago, they finally rented a house in Chattanooga, where Janet Parham works at Erlanger hospital. They have battled their insurance company for months on how much money they should receive. The company has paid out some claims, but not enough to rebuild their home.
"It's going at a snail's pace; we do what we can as we can," Parham said.
He described what used to be -- the wisteria plant that twined around the backyard pergola has grown back, creeping along the ground. The grass is choked out by goldenrod and weeds.
His blue eyes are sad.
There are so many decisions, he said. Decisions they had already made now must be made again after 40 years of marriage and two grown children. The stress strains their relationship.
Parham is grateful for the volunteers who cleaned up the hundreds of trees that littered their property and salvaged tools for his furniture shop. But they can't give back the life he had.
"What used to take five minutes now takes an hour," he said. "You reach for a screwdriver and it isn't there. You prepare for other things; I just wasn't ready for a tornado."
It doesn't matter where Wendy Ellis goes. Six months ago never goes away.
On April 27, she lost her older son, mother, grandmother and cousin when their Apison trailer lost an over-before-it-started battle against a tornado that defied description.
But she sees hope in her biggest April 27 reminder -- her precocious little boy.
Eight-year-old Andrew Ellis defied the odds, physics and common sense, not only surviving a devil wind and the collapse of his grandmother's trailer, but rehabbing through a traumatic brain injury, broken femur and mutilated elbow to a point where his mother says, "He's not an 8-year-old anymore."
"It still takes an act of Congress to keep him off the trampoline," she said with a smile. "But he's become a lot more mature, and he's focusing more in school."
On Monday, Andrew travels to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta to get the pins taken out of his right elbow. But last week he shied away from tornado talk, smiling and broaching Boy Scouts, BB gun exploits and the two elementary school girlfriends he lured when, he said, he told a funny story about sleepwalking and they asked him to tell it "again and again and again."
In his own way, his mother said, Andrew deals with losing his brother, second cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother. One day last week, Wendy cleaned underneath her bed and found an old family album. Her son carries it around everywhere.
"Just finding that was such a treasure," she said, "because that's memories."
Wendy emerged without a scratch -- she was in Rossville when the tornado decimated Apison, killing eight -- but now she's dealing with the real world and all the red tape that binds it.
Records show the Federal Emergency Management Agency twice denied Wendy's funding request for nearly $500,000 in doctor bills for her son, demanding more documentation.
"It was a natural disaster, so I will go to the state representatives all the way up to Washington if I have to," she said. "I'll appeal it until I can appeal no more."
It is noon at Henagar Baptist Church in DeKalb County. Dozens of people crowd around tables, laughing, talking and sharing stories between bites of chicken and salad.
The women from the church have served lunch here almost every day for the last six months, serving volunteers from Iowa, South Carolina, California, Minnesota and Michigan. Teenagers and retired construction workers, Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists.
After lunch, they spread out across the county to work on complete rebuilds for homes wiped off their foundations. One group works on a new home for the pastor of Henagar Baptist Church, who lost his home and his mother in the storm.
"Methodists building a Baptist home, now that is something you don't see every day," Roger Haney joked.
Haney, 57, was an emergency room nurse on disability leave the day the tornadoes hit. He arrived at Henagar Baptist Church on crutches and with one foot in a medical boot. He didn't attend the church, didn't know anyone there.
Six months later, he is still there.
He coordinates volunteers for the Sand Mountain Long Term Recovery Committee serving Jackson and DeKalb counties.
His life centers around The Book, a green notebook filled with information about everyone who came to the church for help, including their insurance information and how much money they have to rebuild. The meticulous notes he took those first days as he interviewed every victim walking through the church doors now help leaders of the group decide how to assist in recovery.
The Book also maps volunteers; Haney has teams scheduled through June of next year.
"God told me to come here," Haney said.
At first Brenda Bryson didn't want to rebuild her home on Cherokee Valley Road in Ringgold, Ga. She had bought it because of the trees -- the Bradford pears with their red leaves in the fall and the dogwoods that bloomed white each spring.
Those were all gone, wiped out by the tornado that left little more than a few walls standing in the home the Brysons had bought only 18 months earlier after moving back from Galveston, Texas. She saw hurricanes there and went through three earthquakes in California, but nothing prepared her for that April night, when she hid in the bathroom as the tornado tore through.
"I was raised here, lived here until I was 30 years old, and they always said a tornado wouldn't cross a ridge, that it was safe here," Bryson said. "Well, it came right down that ridge and went up the other side. When I opened my bathroom door and saw sky, I freaked out. It was unreal."
Bryson and her husband, Pete, moved back into their home last week after living in a tiny travel trailer parked in their driveway all summer.
It is good to be back home, Bryson said. They replanted Bradford pears in the front yard and rose bushes around the porch. A sign above the kitchen sink says "HOME."
Cherokee Valley Road was one of the hardest-hit areas in Georgia, with dozens of homes destroyed and seven people killed. But it is also one of the areas that has seen the most change in the last six months. Home after home after home is being rebuilt, with most near completion. The debris has been cleaned away. The power of the storm can best be seen along the once-wooded ridge above the valley, now a tangle of splintered trees.
Not everyone is rebuilding. In the eye of the storm, at the intersection of Cherokee Valley Road and Friendship Road, there are untouched concrete slabs where homes used to be. The seven deaths occurred there, most of them within 200 yards of one another. A family of four was killed.
Some of their neighbors say they can never rebuild there, Bryson said. It is just too difficult.
After the tornado, Bryson panicked at each thunderstorm that rolled through the valley, she said. But the months have brought a measure of healing. Moving into the home, where she picked out the paint colors and the hardwood flooring, has helped.
The tornado has changed some things for the better, she added. That night, everyone from the valley walked up and down the road like zombies, talking to each other and making sure their neighbors were OK. No one had a home.
Those conversations have grown into friendships, Bryson said, many of them with people she didn't even know before the storm.
"Everybody is more neighborly now," she said.
Six months ago, Kathleen and Edward Anderson crawled from the rubble of the home they had built 20 years ago on County Road 95 in Jackson County, Ala.
They had nothing but their lives.
For weeks, the couple lived in a tiny travel trailer, combing through the debris that was once their home to salvage what they could in the heat of the Alabama summer.
Edward, 65, had to double his blood pressure medicine and frequently fell down the trailer's steps. Kathleen, 66, had a deep gash on her arm that refused to heal.
The couple always remained optimistic through the heartbreaking and backbreaking work, but the despair crept into their voices as they talked about the future.
They had no home, no money to rebuild.
On a recent morning, Kathleen talked to three volunteers from Maryland as they slapped on drywall mud and carefully smoothed over the nail holes. She looks 10 years younger than she did during those dark days.
Their new home is almost finished. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Heather moss-colored siding. A back porch to watch the sunset. A room for a few of the scratched guitars Edward was able to salvage from the more than a dozen he once owned.
"This is God's house," Kathleen said.
Soft-spoken and quiet, Edward didn't say much during the home tour. He proudly showed the carefully crafted porch railing he helped install. Nearby is a brown chair, with a little rust on the wheels. It is one of the few things salvaged from their old home.
"These people don't realize how much Kathleen and I appreciate their help," he said softly.
On the back porch, a handcrafted willow swing has been hung, a gift from one of the volunteers from Iowa who helped with the rebuild.
"If I was a crying person, I'd be in tears all the time," Kathleen said. "I always knew this was a good community, but you don't know just how good until something like this happens.
"We want to give back; we have to find a foundation to give back."
The couple's eyes cloud a little when they look across the still-ravaged land around their new home. They can see the busy state Highway 71 more than a mile away, and their neighbors across the pasture. The trees will not grow back in their lifetime.
Down the road are boarded-up mobile homes. Some people have moved into new mobile homes, but recovery is slow. The home where four people died has not been rebuilt.
Eight people died in Jackson County, and three more from there died when the tornado hit Tuscaloosa.
"I don't drive down the road very much," Kathleen said. "I remember how it was."
She wipes away tears when she talks about her piano, badly damaged and in storage for now. She learned to play when she was 60, a lifelong dream.
It can be repaired, she said. She just isn't sure how or when.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...
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, ...