published Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Video: Chattanooga area tornado damage in full view

6 tornadoes confirmed • Area damage tops $19 million • 77 homes destroyed in Hamilton County

Debris is scattered everywhere at one Harrison resident's home Monday after an EF3 tornado touched down in the waterfront Savannah Bay community on Friday, March 2, 2012.
Debris is scattered everywhere at one Harrison resident's home Monday after an EF3 tornado touched down in the waterfront Savannah Bay community on Friday, March 2, 2012.
Photo by Dan Henry.
  • EF-3 tornado hits Harrison, Tenn., area
    Watch an aerial view of the destruction from an EF-3 tornado in the areas of Harrison and Ooltewah, Tenn.

Local officials are hoping for an infusion of federal disaster aid after initial estimates show that Friday's tornadoes inflicted at least $19 million worth of damage in the area.

"We won't know for a few days whether we get a federal declaration, but I've looked at every house myself -- and we suffered some brutal damage," said Hamilton County chief of emergency management Bill Tittle. "FEMA inspectors will probably be down here Wednesday, so we'll be showing them the area."

Hamilton County officials announced Monday that their preliminary assessments show more than $16 million worth of damages to residential areas in Harrison and Ooltewah -- at least $10 million of that from 77 homes deemed "completely destroyed," according to Hamilton County Emergency Services spokeswoman Amy Maxwell.

Bradley County officials gauge damages to their area at more than $3 million. McMinn County has reported at least 40 homes destroyed.

National Weather Service officials in Morristown, Tenn., have confirmed that at least six tornadoes tore through the region, including an EF3 with 165 mph winds that plowed through Harrison and into Bradley County.

As all that data is compiled and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam's office, then forwarded to the White House, homeowners are wasting no time waiting for a response.

The Harrison area was bustling Monday with homeowners and volunteers sorting through wreckage and wielding chain saws. Some piled stacks of wood, while others tightened tarps across roofs.

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where tornadoes struck

Tornadoes that hit the region, according to initial reports:

1 EF3 tornado touched down near Harrison in Hamilton County, then tracked into Bradley County.

1 EF2 tornado hit near Delano in McMinn County, Tenn.

1 EF2 tornado hit Tellico Plains in Monroe County, Tenn.

1 EF2 tornado hit Murphy, N.C.

2 EF1 tornadoes touched down near Haletown in Marion County, Tenn.

Source: National Weather Service

Utilities crews crisscrossed streets to repair felled power lines, while backhoes clawed at the mountainous stacks of fallen trees on the roadsides.

In the yard of one tattered house, a man knelt in his yard, setting up a bird house.

As he drove through storm-ravaged Short Springs Road, Snow Hill and Savannah Bay on Monday, Tittle pulled up next to utility crews and sheriff's deputies, making sure they had been fed and telling them thank you.

"You all are doing a great job out here, getting these lines back up here," he told one crew working on power lines.

He pulled up next to ruined houses and stopped to ask if the families needed any help.

"Is there anything we're not doing for you? Is there anything you need?" he asked.

"I'd say we're good for right now," responded one man standing in front of a splintered house tented with a blue tarp. "We're OK."

Emergency response workers and utility crews are working long days and taking around-the-clock shifts to help the community stabilize.

Power is back on in most areas. Four TVA power transmission lines were returned to service Sunday and Monday. Five lines still are under repair and about 250 customers are experiencing outages in East Tennessee and North Carolina, TVA officials said Monday.

As cleanup continues, storm distribution centers are filling up with truckloads of bottled water, food, cleaning supplies, clothes and baby necessities.

Two distribution centers have been set up in Hamilton County -- one at Camp Joy, at 6626 Hunter Road, and another at Greenwood Baptist Church, at 8529 Snow Hill Road.

Amazon has sent boxes of supplies. Ace Hardware and Home Depot have sent over building supplies and tools, and local restaurants continue to fix thousands of meals.

So far the well-stocked distribution centers have seen only a trickle of storm victims picking up supplies, but volunteers think that will change as people move out of the first critical stage of relief work.

"Right now it's the cleanup," said Angie Lee, one of the volunteers at Greenwood Baptist Church. "We're feeding them right now, but we're still trying to get out the word that we have supplies and a hot meal here at night."

Hundreds are homeless as the number of severely damaged residences continues to climb. The latest Hamilton County statistics show 346 homes with significant damage.

But Tittle says he still marvels that the area was spared the heaviest toll -- loss of life.

"You look at some of these homes, and you just have no earthly idea how some of these people lived," he said, gesturing to the skeleton of a house with its walls and roof spilling into the yard. "There were people in that house. How do you survive that?"

Hamilton County officials say they can't yet account for factors that may have contributed to a survival rate some are calling "miraculous," though several officials have said people were taking forecasts more seriously after last year's deadly tornadoes.

Many still are battling serious injuries, however.

Erlanger officials gave some scope of the injuries they were treating Monday, though hospital officials were not able to give the number of patients with storm-related injuries who were still being treated.

Trauma injuries included internal injuries, multiple fractures and head trauma, while minor injuries included lacerations, fractures, puncture wounds and neck and back pain.

One child was still being treated at the Children's Hospital at Erlanger, spokeswoman Jennifer Homa said Monday.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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