published Monday, December 24th, 2012

Neighbors pull together in Harrison, Tenn., area hard hit by March 2 tornado

Hugo Cortez, left, and Gustavo Garcia and  work to rebuild a house at 7401 Davis Mill Circle. "The residents have been out of their house and in a motel for more than 6 months," Cortez said.
Hugo Cortez, left, and Gustavo Garcia and work to rebuild a house at 7401 Davis Mill Circle. "The residents have been out of their house and in a motel for more than 6 months," Cortez said.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Carl Evett dropped to his knees by his bathroom door when the tornado ripped through his Short Tail Springs Road home March 2.

"I told God, 'I'm not ready to go yet,'" Evett recalled. "And he left me."

When the storm passed, Evett was left -- dazed but unharmed -- in the wreckage of his small, uninsured house.

"The tornado took it all away, except me and the couch and the living room," he said. In the moments after the twister, he crawled over a wall and sat down on the floor of his basement.

"The storm was gone. I didn't need to be in the basement," he said. "But that was my thinking at the time. I sat there a few minutes, and then I realized there was water running. You could hear it just running and running."

The 10 months since that moment in the basement have been a long journey.

"From hell to happiness," he said, trying to sum it up.

The EF3 tornado destroyed 82 homes when it swept through Harrison and Ooltewah, and it damaged 262 more. The hilly, once-forested landscape is scarred with swaths of twisted, uprooted trees, and some homeowners still are using bright blue tarps to cover patches of missing roof.

Signs of improvement stand in sharp contrast -- many houses have new front porches, windows or mailboxes. Bulldozers grumble through yards with no grass, and construction workers pound nails into the roofs of nearly finished houses. Some residents even have put up Christmas lights and decorations.

And while the recovery effort is making steady progress, the natural landscape is the slowest to heal.

"Our subdivision was called Woodland Bay subdivision because of the huge oak trees -- and now we don't have any," resident Heman McDade said sadly. His house wasn't badly damaged, but his yard was littered with 40 fallen trees.

"It's been nine months rebuilding the landscape, and we just got some semblance of order," he said. His neighborhood usually gets together for a Christmas party, but after losing 14 houses in the subdivision, no one has organized it this year.

"I think it's just a little too difficult this year," McDade said.

But still, McDade, like many other homeowners in the area, was insured. When he heard that Evett was struggling to rebuild, he and neighbor Jack Brassfield -- both with long careers in construction -- wanted to help.

"The rest of us got hit by it, and we were busy taking care of our business, but every day we drove by, we'd see Carl out there picking up debris," Brassfield said. "Every day. All by himself."

The two leveraged connections and called in IOUs to help Evett rebuild with only the relief money he had received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Heman came back and said, 'I think we can do this,'" Evett said. "And it's been happening ever since."

Working with an army of volunteers and Bayside Baptist Church, McDade and Brassfield helped Evett -- whom they had never met before the storm -- build a new home about 50 feet away from the ruins of his basement.

"You have no idea how many good people there are," Evett said. "We go through life kind of pessimistic about people, until you have something like this happen and so many good people come out of the woodwork to help you."

Construction companies and businesses donated hardwood flooring, windows, drywall, carpet, doors and labor. Volunteers put in central air and heat, wires and tiles.

"It was like ants on an anthill," Brassfield said. "Just so many different people. This was a gift of love."

Last week, Evett, who previously worked as a janitor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, was painting the frame around his new front door. The hardwood floors were covered in brown paper, and the light switches, door knobs and countertops hadn't been installed.

There was no furniture, and Evett is still living in his sister's home. He won't be able to move in by Christmas, but he hopes to make the switch by New Year's.

"It was really bad in the beginning, but I'm better off now," he said, standing on his new front porch. "I mean, people suffered because it was really horrible -- when you lose everything you have and you don't know which way to turn. But when you do turn that corner and things start looking up, you're better off."

And most people in the area have turned that corner in time for the holidays, said Bill Tittle, Hamilton County chief of emergency management.

"We're seeing a lot of repaired homes, and some homes that were destroyed have been torn down," he said. "We've seen a lot of recovery in the neighborhoods -- holes have been repaired, and some houses have been rebuilt."

The requests for aid have dwindled slowly, Tittle said, and most people who were affected also were insured, which helped speed up the overall recovery.

Brassfield said he enjoyed spending the holiday season building Evett's new home.

"It's been a holiday every day just going down there," he said. "Carl would be sitting back in the corner, just watching us work with tears in his eyes."

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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