There are certain days you will never forget. Members of the “Greatest Generation” could tell you exactly where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For Baby Boomers, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Apollo 11 moon landing are most unforgettable. Two moments: one tragic, one celebratory, and both frozen in time.
Many also have vivid memories of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the launch of the Persian Gulf War.
More recently, the tragic events of September 11, 2001 are etched in our memories. Everyone can tell you how their daily routine came to a sudden halt as we watched and waited.
On a personal level, few events in recent memory can match the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak that ripped through the heart of the Tennessee Valley.
We lost 80 lives in a 60 mile radius of Chattanooga that on that dark Wednesday. For about 13 hours, the tornadoes came in waves. One would pass through, only to be followed by another storm, equally fierce.
We had been told by forecasters to find the lowest, innermost area of our homes, the smallest room away from windows. At that point, you just hold hands and pray. Many folks did just that, and afterward, most of them emerged to find their home had been spared. But so many more were heavily damaged or even destroyed. Ten years later, you can still find driveways to nowhere, leading to foundations where houses once stood.
Dade County, GA and Jackson and DeKalb counties in Alabama were among the hardest hit. The tornadoes’ paths were unpredictable. Rescue workers scratched their heads as they observed total destruction on one side of the street, and unscathed property on the other.
I remember driving on GA Highway 301 on Sand Mountain after the storm, looking at houses with rooftops blown away, trees broken like matchsticks, and power lines dangling. Thankfully, the tornado veered away just before reaching Dade Health and Rehab, where elderly residents surely feared the worst. It was a silver lining in a cloud of tragedy, a reminder that as awful as it was, it could have been even worse.
Severe weather had been in the forecast for a couple of days in advance. Yet even the experts were surprised by the magnitude, and the timing. Tornadoes usually occur in the afternoon and evening. Much of our damage came early in the morning, and late at night. Also, it was long believed that some areas would be shielded by mountains and ridges. Like many Chattanooga residents, I had seen tornado warnings for years, but nothing had ever struck my neighborhood, at the foot of Walden’s Ridge (Signal Mountain). Having lived there for 25 years, I had heard my neighbors say we were in a safe spot.
So, when my phone rang at 9:00 that morning, I was surprised. My wife, who worked downtown, asked me if I was watching TV. I said no, figuring that whatever was coming would arrive much later. She told me her workplace (UTC) was on alert, and employees had been instructed to find shelter. I turned on our downstairs TV, an older set that always made a “warming up” noise. I thought that was the sound I was hearing, until I realized it was some serious wind. The power went off, and I rushed to a closet, holding on for dear life. It seemed like five minutes, although it was really only a few seconds.
When the noise died down, I looked at our back yard, and everything looked fairly normal. Then I looked out front, and saw fallen trees, houses with roof damage, and power lines on the road. The tornado had missed one street, and devastated the next. We were more fortunate than many. We didn’t have electricity for nine days, but our overall damage was minor. And as expected, the storms that developed later that day resulted in great loss of life and heavy damage.
In the following days, we saw amazing rescues and incredible volunteerism. Neighbors and strangers, coming together to rebuild lives. Now like many of you, I pay far more attention to severe weather warnings, and I worry more than I used to when the wind starts whistling.
I am thankful for our forecasters, and the technology that allows them to issue warnings, with pinpoint accuracy. We’re more prepared now, but we’re also more aware that natural tragedies can happen any time, any place. Perhaps the most positive lesson is this: We are truly fortunate to live in a region where people will stop what they’re doing for months at a time to help others in times of tragedy. I will never take that for granted.