By Briana Brady, Opinion Editor-
When I published my previous article about Bill Withers’s life and legacy (specifically considering the continual applicability of “Lean on Me”), I had no idea how those words would evolve for me as life changed a mere three days later.
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, my family and I experienced the wrath of an EF-3 tornado that tore through our East Brainerd neighborhood about 11:30 that night.
The day began like most days during quarantine, except with some Easter-related additions: my family woke up throughout the early and mid-morning and turned on a televised Easter service while we made breakfast. We spent the entire day before laying down fresh mulch in our yard, so we were all pretty tired that morning and enjoyed the slow start to the day. We Zoomed with some family in Texas and even asked them about the storms that had just left their area and were headed our way. They assured us their round wasn’t too severe, and we told them we’d keep our fingers crossed that it stayed that way as it headed towards us.
I had made sure to take an early shower and we ate an earlier dinner that night as well. My younger sister and I were sitting downstairs with my parents, and we were distracting ourselves with Instagram and Snapchat filters on my phone. We had the news on, but as the storm was still a bit west of us, I (despite all my storm anxiety) decided at about 9pm that I’d head upstairs and watch something else until about 10:15pm, since Paul Barys didn’t anticipate the storms nearing our area until about 11pm. My sister later followed. Straying from the news during an approaching storm is uncharacteristic of me, and I still don’t know what led me to do that for an hour or so that evening. However, a bit after 10pm, I turned the news back on and began attentively listening to all the predictions and data that the meteorologists were sharing from their own observations as well as those from the National Weather Service.
About 11:10pm, the storms were over Signal Mountain and the rain was coming down at a rate of close to 7″ an hour there; that rate of rain was absolutely unheard of. I began to hear the wind speeds picking up, so I decided that I should probably head downstairs. About that time, our weather radio (which we had miraculously set up a couple weeks earlier) sounded of a tornado warning for Hamilton County. I got my sister, who was also in her room, and left my brother to his gaming until we knew more of the threat. From this point on, the time all begins to blend together in my memory. All I have for reference are frantic text messages.
Sometime shortly after my sister and I got downstairs, Paul announced on the TV that he noticed a storm cell with rotation forming over the Camp Jordan area and beginning to head straight up I-75. Essentially, it was heading straight for us. At this point, we began the process of sheltering. I called my brother upstairs and told him to come downstairs immediately. My Dad and I began clearing out our 2’x3′ coat closet as quickly as I could–the only interior space in our house–which we had all practiced fitting into when a minor storm came through a couple weeks earlier. Getting five adult-sized people in that closet is quite a task in itself.
By the time my brother got downstairs, thunder and rain were growing louder. Dad and I tossed out the last couple items in the closet and as a big crack of thunder sounded, the power went out. About the same time the power went out, the cell towers must have been struck. From then on, I couldn’t access any weather updates on my phone at all, so we had no idea what was happening except for what we could judge by sound alone. For me, this was really frightening. Per my last text message sent saying “it’s so loud,” the power must have gone out and the front of the storm approached sometime between 11:25pm-11:30pm. In the closet, the house began to violently shake. Thankfully, I had thought to grab my flashlight when I came downstairs, so we had a bit of light in the tiny closet. We heard debris of every kind being blasted against our house. Crashing noises, rattling noises, roaring and howling winds, everything. Our ears then began popping (something we had never heard anyone talk about during a tornado), and I had a feeling we were in the thick of the storm at that point. I grabbed my sister’s hand. I was shaking; the house was rocking. It felt and sounded like a freight train coming, just like people say. I was absolutely terrified.
After about five minutes, we think (but what felt like forever), we began to notice that the wind noise was lessening, even though the rain, lightning, and thunder were still quite intense. My Dad hesitantly opened the closet door, and he began to see what all had happened in the house. Inside, Dad didn’t immediately notice any roof openings, so that was a relief to all of us. Per the sound and the pressure changes, I was expecting our roof to be at least partially gone. I was still so nervous without access to the weather, friends, family, and phone alerts that I wasn’t yet ready to get out of the closet. As I sat in the closet, still shaking from a panic attack, Dad walked to the front windows to see outside. He was shocked to see how much had happened in the front of our house. Trees were down everywhere, and there was a tree that had fallen on top of my car parked in the driveway. Trees were on top of neighbors’ roofs, and a tree had fallen right up to our doorstep but missed our house; it came so close that we could hardly open the door. When we walked around the main floor a bit more we noticed water and debris that had come in through our windows and doors and water that was dripping from our foyer ceiling and bedroom ceilings. Our grill had been thrown across the yard, our trampoline completely disassembled, and half of our deck was gone along with some siding on the house.
Soon, first responders came through on foot asking about fatalities, and telling us that we could stay in the house as long as we didn’t notice any structural issues that would make it unsafe. Neighbors ventured into their yards to yell across the road and check on each other. As we continued trying to get up water and debris as best we could, the water dripping from the foyer ceiling turned in to more of an all-in waterfall. The foyer ceiling and the chandelier in it looked like they could fall at any point. More first responders and SWAT personnel came by again, maybe 20 minutes later, this time telling us “we were lucky to be alive,” and that we needed to get out and get to the Command Center ASAP, since a large gas leak had occurred and live power lines were down everywhere. So, we prepared to do so. My family experienced one of those moments where we had to decide what to take of all our belongings in about a five minute period, not knowing what would or wouldn’t be there when we eventually returned. Still shaking from the anxiety and trying to decide what to grab, I packed enough clothes for two days and grabbed my journals and a book. I took my computer and its charger, my phone charger, a pack of crackers, and my water bottle in case we didn’t have anything to eat or drink. It was a moment of decision-making that I’ve reflected on frequently since.
As we locked the door and tried to get out of the driveway, stepping and ducking amidst the fallen trees, the first responders found us and told us that another storm might be coming soon, so we should actually go back inside and shelter in place until further notice. This sparked my anxiety again. I remember saying to my siblings: “I can’t do this again tonight.” So we trekked back inside and tried to save more belongings and floors from the water that was increasingly pouring into our house. Then, about 2:30am, I had enough cell service to have short calls with a couple friends who told me that it didn’t look like the next round of storms was going to hit us, so we should be safe for the night. That was such a relief to hear. To all those who called or answered my calls in the middle of that night, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
One more round of SWAT personnel came by and reminded us that we could leave to head to the Command Center (which we learned was at the YMCA) if we felt it unsafe to stay, and seeing the increasing opening up of our ceilings, we decided to leave. So we grabbed our already packed bags sitting on the kitchen floor, and the SWAT team led us by flashlight, on foot, through the downed trees in our driveway and neighborhood streets to the front of our neighborhood. Walking in the mud, the rain, and through all the overwhelming debris was the only way to get out.
I had actually taken a walk around the neighborhood that Sunday morning before the afternoon rain began, and walking out of our neighborhood not even 24 hours later and seeing all the destruction seemed overwhelmingly surreal. I tried to take a mental picture of everything I saw as we walked out. Of all the memories of that night, seeing the only neighborhood I’ve ever known in complete shambles is especially etched in my mind.
There was so much damage in our neighborhood, and even on foot a considerable amount of the land was impassable. When we finally got to the front of the neighborhood, we loaded in to a SWAT van and were transported down Shallowford Road to the YMCA. Shallowford was lined with at least 50 emergency vehicles, and there was so much debris that we had to drive on sidewalks and through an evacuated nursing home facility’s driveway to get down the road. I saw Grace Baptist Church absolutely obliterated; I saw two churches completely collapsed. Flashing lights blinded me and power poles first responders from getting to those in need.
Once we finally arrived at the Y, it quickly hit me that all the social distancing my family had diligently practiced was, at least to some extent, going to have to take a backseat for a bit. We had our masks, but beyond that, so much was beyond our control at that point. Accessibility to Shallowford was extremely restricted, and it was 3am. We were presented with the choice to either stay the night at the YMCA or call someone with whom we could stay, and since my grandparents who live nearby were awake and checking on us, my grandpa so selflessly came to get us. Again, I worried about being near them; we hadn’t seen them in over a month, but a tornado in the age of the coronavirus complicated the situation significantly.
Knowing that our home was unlivable and my grandparents’ house was not suitable to accommodate my entire family for a long period of time, my siblings and I began to reach out to close friends, asking if we could possibly stay with them for a while (we had no idea of a timeline) until we figured things out more. All wanted to help in any way they could, and they took us in the next day. The kindness shown to us by so many that night alone was absolutely overwhelming. To the second families who so lovingly housed and took care of my siblings and myself for weeks following the storm: thank you… we love you so very much. We are so deeply grateful for you.
I couldn’t sleep a wink that night at my grandparents’ house; I kept replaying the events of the evening in my head and felt as though I’d been awake for days on end. Every time I heard a gust of wind outside, I flinched. I scrolled through my phone as I saw reports coming in of storm data and damage. I viewed early images coming in as dawn broke. I saw on the debris map that my neighborhood and the one across from me were in the heart of the damage. But until I saw it in person, I had no idea what all the storm had taken from so many of my neighbors and those in nearby neighborhoods.
The next morning, having to walk down Shallowford Road to access our neighborhood, my siblings and my parents went to see the damage and began cleaning up the house. The foyer ceiling had indeed opened up significantly, and the water damage was becoming quite apparent in the house. There were holes discovered in the roof by volunteers who had already come to start cleanup, and teams of people worked with my family to begin the long process of cleaning up the yard.
I didn’t see the destruction in person until the next day, but it brought me to tears before I even got to my house. The area was so cleared out that it was nearly unrecognizable, and the condition of homes and extent of loss was absolutely unimaginable. The pictures could never do the destruction justice. I talked to neighbors, heard their miraculous stories of survival, and took a walk throughout my neighborhood to try and take in what I could of the state it all. The back and side of my neighborhood took a significantly harder hit than my street; my family feels very fortunate that our plight is so much better than that of so many of our neighbors. I believe that it is an absolute miracle that the loss of life from this storm was not far greater. Looking at the homes in my neighborhood alone, it is absolutely incredible that folks made it out alive. In the back of my neighborhood, a house was moved off its foundation, another house only left with one room standing. But somehow, everyone survived.
The days and weeks that followed (and continue still) marked the continuation of cleanup and the beginnings of rebuilding. The neighborhood will never be the same, especially without all the beautiful trees hallmarking the land, but the spirit of those living and volunteering in the area is remarkable. The generosity of others absolutely left my family feeling overwhelmed with gratitude.
I’d like to conclude by thanking so many folks who have and continue to extend kindness into our lives and beyond:
To the first responders who showed up within minutes of the storm to rescue and evacuate people, thank you. To those who showed up to volunteer, whether through physical labor, food and water distribution, coordination efforts, or anything else, thank you. To those at EPB who worked all hours of the day to restore power to the community, thank you. To those who called or answered calls in the middle of that night, thank you. To those who texted throughout the night and the days that followed, thank you. To those second families of ours who provided a home (in all the meanings of that word) for myself and my siblings, thank you.
We feel so fortunate to be safe, healthy, and now, together again.