In a matter of hours, a force of nature with a path that was hard to predict, altered the path of our town for the foreseeable future. It claimed lives, destroyed businesses, homes, and shook us all.
Nobody said or thought that it was going to be easy, and for awhile it was downright hard, but we’ve picked up the pieces and we’re getting there — even if it’s only a little bit each day.
Throughout my childhood, I moved back and forth a lot between Cleveland, Tenn., and Fort Walton Beach, Fla., due to my parents being divorced. It wasn’t always easy, but when I was about 14 years old, my mother decided that living her own life was more important than raising kids, so I spent the rest of my adolescence in the Florida pan-handle with my Dad.
In the spring of 2003, after only one year of college, I decided that I wanted to move back the Tennessee/North Georgia area. So I packed all my stuff into the cab and bed of my 1988 Ford Ranger and left home at 19 years old. It was hard to leave the comfort of home and was equally difficult to leave my Dad, who has always been my best friend. One of the things that makes our friendship work so well is our ability to crack a joke even during the most serious of moments. Before I cranked up the truck and pulled out of the driveway, I remember trying to leave Dad with a laugh by saying, “I’ll miss you Dad, but I sure as hell won’t miss hurricane season.”
Fast-forward eight years, and I can honestly say that that night was unlike anything I had ever seen before — even for a kid who grew up on the water in “hurricane alley.”
Until that evening, that Wednesday (April 27, 2011) for the most part was like any other day to me. I got to work early as usual, made my rounds at the police stations to see if anything newsworthy had taken place since the close of business the day before. I then poured a cup of coffee and wrote a preview of Lauren Alaina’s “American Idol” quest that was to continue that night.
I heard rumblings throughout the day of the weather that was headed our way, but as always, I didn’t get too worked up over it. I had a lot going on with “Idol,” crime, and the Ringgold City Council meeting that had been held a couple of nights prior. After a full-plate-type of day, I went home and tried to relax a bit. I did a little laundry, cooked a small dinner for one, which is usually the case when my son is with his mother, and then I kicked back on my couch to watch “American Idol,” since I had recently been forced to become an AI junkie against my will due to the talent of 16-year-old girl. For the record, I’m really proud of Lauren for all she accomplished and for how well she represented our area. But that kid ran me ragged and almost killed me. Just saying.
I live on the outskirts of town. I have a little house on a couple of acres of land with a barn. It’s been my home since I bought it in 2003, six months after I left home as an ambitious 19-year-old. The last thing I ever expected was for a storm to come though this town and jeopardize everything I have.
When “Idol” came on at 8 o’clock, it had already been dark outside for awhile, and the winds were beginning to pick up pretty bad. I could hear tree limbs banging against the metal roof of the barn, and the storm door at the front entrance of my house opening and shutting rapidly from the force of the wind. The power went out shortly thereafter, and my night was reduced to lighting a couple of candles in my living room and playing my guitar, as I do most nights anyway.
A few minutes later, in the middle of a candlelit concert for one, I got a phone call from a buddy of mine that I will never forget. My friend Karl Laue, who worked as a cook at Ruby Tuesday, called to tell me that he and my younger brother Jeff had been caught in the path of the tornado, and narrowly escaped the restaurant with their lives.
“Dude, where are you at?” he asked.
“I’m just waiting out the storm at home. Why, what’s up?” I replied.
“A tornado just hit Ruby’s man, it’s gone — it’s all gone,” he said.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been more scared of anything in my entire life. I had stopped by Ruby Tuesday earlier that afternoon to see Jeff. His birthday was a couple of days away, and I wanted to check and see what the plans were for the celebration that weekend. It wasn’t uncommon; I stopped in there all the time for lunch and just to shoot the breeze with my baby bro, because the restaurant was so close to my office. When I left though, as was the case most of the time, I gave him a hug and said “I’ll see you later.”
Before I could muster up the courage to ask Karl about Jeff, it hit me. “What if earlier today was it? What if that hug and that exchange was that last one I had with my baby brother, who I had spent my whole life looking out for and trying to protect?”
Thankfully, Karl beat me to the punch…
“Jeff’s here with me and he’s fine,” Karl said.
We often hear the term “tears of joy,” but for me, I rarely get emotional over things. But in that moment, I ex-perienced tears of joy for the second time in my life. The blessing, and the relief in knowing that my little brother was okay brought out emotions in me that had only previously been matched by the birth of my son in 2007.
“You need to get out here bro. It’s a mess and all hell has broken loose,” Karl urged.
Still uncertain of what the weather was currently doing in town, not even really sure if it was safe, I grabbed my laptop, my camera, and my video camera, got my truck out of the barn and pulled out of my driveway headed to-wards Alabama Highway. When I pulled out of my driveway onto Brock Circle where I live, I could see downed trees and power lines all around me. It was pitch black, with only a few flashlight beams stirring around in the dis-tance. I took a right towards Mt. Pisgah Road, but there were trees in the roadway and no way to get a car through, let alone an SUV. So I turned around and tried to get to Alabama Highway via the other direction. But what do you know — bigger trees in the road. It wasn’t much of a deliberation on my part. I parked my truck back in the barn, strapped all my gear across my back and over my shoulder, and headed towards town on foot.
Along Brock Circle, I encountered people slowly creeping out of their houses to assess the damage to their homes and their property. I remember seeing a little girl who couldn’t have been much older than my son, clinging to the leg of her father as they walked out into their yard. There was another lady a few houses down, who was hold-ing a toddler as tightly as I’ve ever seen a parent hold a child. Both were in tears.
As I traveled down my street I could hear chainsaws being cranked up in the distance, and the further I walked, the more people I encountered, all of whom kept asking me if I was okay and if I needed anything. Towards the end of Brock Circle, a lady who’s name I regret not catching to this day asked me why I was wandering through the darkness with a computer and two cameras over my shoulder. I told her that I was a news reporter and that I was trying to make it to town to see what had happened.
“Do you really want to get out in the middle of all this,” she asked.
“I kind of have to,” I remember saying. “Not only do I need to get information to people, but I want to check on my family.”
The lady told me to get in her Jeep Cherokee and that she would take me as far as she could towards town. I got in, and she was able to take me as far as Holcomb Road near the Mapco Mart gas station. From there I walked fur-ther down Alabama Highway. Sometimes you hear, see, and feel things that you simply can’t explain. When I made it to the top of the hill near the Food Lion shopping center at the corner of Poplar Springs Road, I was stopped dead in my tracks. With a building demolished behind me, remains of a gas station to my left, and trees and power lines laying at my feet, I realized that a part of the city that I lived and worked in every day didn’t exist anymore. All that seemed to be left was pure darkness illuminated by the lights on the top of the city, county, and state police vehi-cles.
In awe and nearly in tears, I answered my ringing phone.
“Hey Daddy … Momma said I could call you and make sure you are okay,” Dylan said.
“I’m okay baby … Daddy’s always okay,” I replied.
Eventually, we ended the phone call. I collected myself and kept walking further into town.
The devastation still enters my mind sometimes. The panic, shock, and probably the most sobering of all — the fear of the unknown. With the city pretty much on lockdown, and officers patrolling the majority of Alabama High-way, I was given access into town because they all knew me and knew that my office was right in the middle of eve-rything along Nashville Street. At that point in time, I had received conflicting texts and Facebook posts and wasn’t even sure whether my office was even still standing. Once I reached Nashville Street, I was able to meet up with fellow reporter Tim Carlfeldt, whose story-driven personality had pushed him to the middle of the devastation as well. The things we’d seen stunned both of us, and we both acknowledged that we were going to be busy as hell in the coming days.
“One thing is for sure, our workload just went through the roof,” Tim said.
“Ya think?” I replied.
Along the way we talked to numerous people, helped out with any and everything we could, and gathered stories of what each person had seen, heard, or experienced in the previous hours of the night.
My phone died not long into the trip, so I had no way of letting my boss know where I was at or what I was doing. I couldn’t field calls from friends and family members checking on me, and I still had not spoken to my brother Jeff. It’s extremely hard to be strong, stay focused, and do what needs to be done when such a disaster takes place. The commotion, the fear, the uncertainty, and the sadness on the faces of those involved affected me so much that night. I’ve never felt anything like it before.
Finally, after hundreds of photos, dozens of conversations with citizens and police, Tim and I called it a night at about 1 a.m. I wanted to be ready at daylight to do my job as a reporter and get the information to the community. With that in mind, I was also afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get back near downtown if I walked the nearly four miles back to my house, so I did what I wanted and needed to do. I walked up Boynton Drive to Bedford Place Apartments, and spent the night with my little brother Jeff, his wife Kayla, and their son Jaxen. In the 24 years of his life, I don’t think I’ve ever hugged my brother Jeff tighter than I did that night when I finally made it to him and got to see for myself that he was indeed okay.
The next few days and even weeks sort of blended together. More photos, interviews, and press conferences con-sumed my days as a reporter. One of my good friends, reporter Rachel Brown from The Dalton Daily Citizen, even came to town the day after the storm and she and I walked through the rubble discussing how each of us was to put into words what was taking place in this town as a result of such a catastrophe.
“It’s days like today that make me not like this job all that much. … It’s so sad,” I remember saying.
“I know. … It’s sad that bad things can happen to good people,” Rachel replied.
From day one, the town and the community showed its resiliency. What I will always remember most about that night and the days that followed is how everybody came together in the wake of it all. My brother and his co-workers helped customers escape a collapsing building. Neighbors I had never bothered to talk to were lining our street with their chainsaws, trucks, and wheelbarrows helping to clean up the mess. Friends I hadn’t seen in awhile were calling to make sure I was okay and if I needed anything. More importantly though, it was a collective effort, and we did it together.
I thought about writing this column a month after the storm after Ringgold’s 1890s Day Jamboree. I just couldn’t get over how we’d all shown our true colors as a community and grown so much in such a short amount of time. There had been talks of canceling the event, but I remember city manager Dan Wright and others stressing the im-portance of the event and how much the city needed the gathering in light of all that had happened.
The event was a success. Not only because it brought people together in the middle of downtown during a holi-day weekend, but mainly because it was the first time I had seen that many smiling faces in the city of Ringgold in over a month.
To this day, my heart aches for the families of those who lost their lives during the storm. Nobody who was in Ringgold that night will ever forget what happened, nor should they. I just wanted to take a little time to say how thankful and proud I am to call this town my home.
Catoosa County News reporter Adam Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-935-2621.