It's almost noon and the only kitchen in Apison that still serves tornado victims and volunteers every day buzzes with activity.
Jesse Holt pulls up to the huddle of blue and white tents and a mobile kitchen at the corner of Apison Pike and Clonts Road, his truck tires squashed from the weight of a pallet of bottled water on the back. Tucked around the edges of the water are insulated red containers filled with food cooked by the Salvation Army's culinary school.
Holt is a retired truck driver, but he still hauls things -- these days as a volunteer with the donated item of the day. Today it is water, sometimes it is Gatorade. Tomorrow it will be snack cakes.
Holt and other volunteers swarm around the truck, carrying the water and food into the blue tarp tent and mobile food kitchen. Another tent has rows of tables and chairs.
The savory smell of crispy fried chicken, green beans and corn pulls in the workers. In 30 minutes, a dozen people gather around the tables, balancing plates of warm food. Their faces are streaked in sweat, their T-shirts marked with telltale dirt after a morning's work clearing trees and hanging drywall.
A green fan, water cooled, blows welcome wafts of air in the sweltering Tennessee heat.
Outside the tent, the stripped-bare 360-degree view shows the path of April's tornado. All around are houses in various stages of rebuilding and repair, windows going in here, metal roofing there. A few twisted trees remain in the forever-changed landscape.
In the four months since the storm, a handful of volunteers working from the intersection operate as the heart of the recovery in Apison. They feed people twice a day and coordinate dozens of volunteer projects.
The kitchen just sort of happened, said Salvation Army spokeswoman Kimberly George. For three weeks after the tornadoes, the Salvation Army delivered food in its mobile kitchen, while JoJo Macatiag and several other volunteers began organizing efforts under the tents.
As the Salvation Army wrapped up its mobile feeding program, Macatiag came to them.
"He was sort of panicking, saying they still need to feed people," George said. "We said we'd be happy to help."
Macatiag said "it just sort of snowballed from there."
"Word got out and churches started coming in," he said.
Some days a dozen people come in to eat; some days there are 300. At noon, most of them are volunteers, working on cleanup and rebuilding. For dinner, more homeowners trickle in.
The Salvation Army brings lunch; dinner might be pizzas from Papa John's or cooked by a church. The Salvation Army's mobile kitchen is set on blocks of wood, a permanent part of the tents, portable toilets and a few plywood storage buildings.
On Thursday, most of the volunteers were from far-flung places such as California and Walla Walla, Wash. Hal and Jennifer Dudney, from Sonora, Calif., heard about the damage in Apison and volunteered for 10 days.
"The Lord impressed on us to come," Jennifer Dudney said, her dark brown hair pulled back in a braid.
The couple's two children, ages 7 and 4, are staying with friends, and Hal Dudner took time off from his job to come to Tennessee.
"We've been more blessed than the people we are helping," he insisted. "It puts it in perspective how well off you are."
Chip Thomas comes to Apison from Signal Mountain every day. Thomas, 64, took time off from work and plans to spend September volunteering in Apison.
The efforts at the corner are well organized and he doesn't need to be part of a group to volunteer, he said.
"You just walk in and they put you to work," he said. "People are losing interest after four months, but there is still so much to be done."
Thursday's lunch turned into an impromptu planning meeting as Macatiag and others on the six-person leadership team discussed where teams of volunteers would work over the weekend.
A man with the North Georgia United Methodist disaster response team dropped by and asked if he could bring several youth groups on Saturday, maybe 20 to 30 people. Macatiag decided they can split and stack wood and clean up yards still covered with sticks and small pieces of debris.
Macatiag said he has no idea how long they will keep on feeding people -- perhaps until people are back in their homes. The flood of volunteers has slowed to a trickle, he said, and they desperately need skilled laborers to help in rebuilding efforts.
A volunteer firefighter who grew up in the Apison area, Macatiag had planned to leave for Alaska this spring and look for work there. He had enough money saved for the summer.
Then came April 27. The home of his 78-year-old stepfather was wiped off its foundation. Macatiag pitched his first tent and began coordinating volunteers to help rebuild the home.
Four months -- 126 days on Thursday -- and Macatiag is still there. Every day.
"It wears on you," he admits. "What keeps you going is how God puts everything together."
That and the homeowners who are slowly moving back into their completed homes, built by volunteers.
"Those first days, they were like zombies. Hopeless. You could see it in their eyes," he said. "Now they have hope."
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, ...