Citizens were counting their blessings as they evacuated homes, escaping the day without loss of life in Walker County as worse disasters befell neighboring counties.
The initial damage assessments in Trenton and Ringgold seemed catastrophic and unthinkable, at least until even more powerful storms hit places like Tuscaloosa and Rainsville in Alabama.
It is now known as the 2011 Super Outbreak (April 25-28, 2011) by meteorologists in which 358 tornadoes ravaged the Southeast, claiming 348 people — the overwhelming majority of which happened on April 27, the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1925, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Numerous communities were put to the test during the daylong assault of increasingly violent weather.
Misguided beliefs that mountains could protect the valleys were proven wrong as communities in both areas were rudely awakened to a new reality.
The day left indelible memories for most throughout the region.
Review of response
Community members young and old became an army of volunteers that flocked to the devastated areas.
It also tested the capabilities of first responders and organizational plans of county officials, both of which have been praised by many of the impacted residents and volunteers alike.
Calls from the city of Rossville became the first of hundreds of 911 calls during that day.
The first caller described a massive tree that crushed a home on Andrews Street. It is now a vacant lot.
Another neighbor called for an elderly lady that was hysterical from what had happened around her.
Reports of downed power lines and trees hitting homes kept Walker County Emergency Services responders busy till early afternoon. They quickly became aware that there was much more that lay ahead in the hours and days to come.
“We’ve got several cars underneath the bridge (to seek shelter), and that thing shook us like a rag doll,” one caller on Battlefield Parkway said to 911 dispatch.
WCES chief Randy Camp advised all personnel to get “in quarters” for safety as the tornado descended Lookout Mountain.
“We were sitting in line at Taco Bell when the tornado touched down and we heard that it hit Eagles Landing,” Ashburn said.
Ashburn and his brother, Jeremy Swaggerty, responded to the call, becoming the first WCES unit on the scene.
Hundreds of trees landed on the roadway, making response particularly challenging along Ridgeland Road and Dry Valley Road where the tornado continued after hitting Flintstone.
“Getting there was a unique challenge of its own,” Ashburn said as the down trees blocking roads caused them to drive through several yards in their response.
Many homeowners in the streets, which had already begun accounting for their neighbors, met them.
A small handful of first responders conducted a quick house-to-house search, pleased that there had been no loss of life.
Within 15 minutes of the response, a mass casualty bus with Angel Ambulance Service that had been on standby was cancelled. Responders shifted to dealing with gas leaks from the most severely destroyed homes and evacuating the citizens while securing the scene.
No one in Flintstone was transported by ambulance to the hospital, according to Ashburn.
Three rescue units were sent to Ringgold later that evening as it began a much larger scale search.
A WCES command post was set up in Flintstone, which coordinated chainsaw crews and tasks for first responders that were working with volunteers.
From the mountain to the valley
A search of Google maps provides an interesting juxtaposition, with the aerial view showing current vacant lots and thousands of downed trees littering the landscape, while the street view shows the homes prior to the devastation, ironically with storm clouds over Flintstone.
Only one resident has not returned to the Hinkle community atop Lookout Mountain, having chosen to live with her mother.
“The effort has been to get people back in their homes, but we still look like a tornado disaster area,” Susan Gravitt said.
She is grateful for the help from county employees and hundreds of volunteers who responded to the area.
Gravitt was one of 50 “core volunteers” who operated an emergency center at Lookout Mountain Grace Community Church, where her husband is the pastor.
Students and faculty from Covenant College helped along with several area churches and foundations.
“Emotionally it is tough to get past this because there is still so much debris to look at,” Gravitt said.
Residents are working with county officials to obtain a waiver to the federal burn ban.
“We’re desperately trying to find a way that is cost-effective to remove the trees,” Gravitt said.
Nearly a year after the tornadoes, tree stumps stand like tombstones in some Flintstone yards.
Eagle Landing Drive looks like a new development with a few vacant lots to be sold. New siding and roofs for nearly all the homes on the block hide the fact most were built nearly a dozen years ago.
Most of the homes have been repaired but the emotion of losing a lifetime of irreplaceable mementos is a lasting pain.
The frustration of residents watching gawkers driving by snapping cell phone pictures of their newly ruined reality was particularly disgusting to those in anguish from what they had lost.
Tornado tourists became so prevalent that streets were eventually closed, with a deputy checking identification for entry.
Nearly 20 people have not returned to the four Flintstone subdivisions, while finding residency elsewhere during the recovery.
As with most people throughout the region, severe weather has become a much greater concern. Many who liked to watch thunder and lightning now view it as a warning to see what forecasters are cautioning, as on March 2, 2012, when Chattanooga was hit by a twister.
“A community certainly has been affected when a 14-year-old puts a weather app on first upon getting an Ipad for Christmas,” John Nightingale said.
He and his wife Susan have spent the past year rebuilding their home while living in Chattanooga.
The couple, as all of those impacted, quickly learned the little things that insurance didn’t cover.
The neighbors on Eagle Landing will mark the one-year mark by planting trees on April 28. Members of the Hinkle community plan to do the same at Lookout Mountain Grace Community Church.