published Monday, March 5th, 2012

Volunteers offer relief efforts to those affected by Harrison and Ooltewah tornadoes

  • photo
    Jojo Macatiag, the organizer of a group of volunteers known as Open House, clears downed trees cut by workers in a yard on Short Tail Springs Road as work continues Sunday in the aftermath of Friday's tornadoes.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

The sawdust flying off Jojo Macatiag's chain saw mingles with the ashen sky, backdropped by houses without roofs and walls. Nearby, Salvation Army trucks rattle down barricaded roads, weaving between power company cherry pickers to deliver hot meals to people collecting scattered storm detritus.

So begins volunteers' arduous task of helping those affected by tornadoes in Harrison and Ooltewah get their lives back on track.

After his stepfather's house was demolished by the April 27 tornadoes last year, Macatiag banded with other volunteer workers, a hodgepodge group including loggers, engineers, a nurse and a former police officer. Though they're still assisting those affected by last April's storm, they were among the first to respond to the newly ravaged communities.

The loosely affiliated group, unofficially known as Open House, spent much of Sunday on Short Tail Springs Road, removing fallen trees from homes and spreading tarps donated by the Samaritan Center over roofs to preserve what was left in homes.

"Our relationships were forged through tears, sweat and blood," said volunteer Joe Cyr, who vowed to give up riding his motorcycle and instead donate hundreds of hours repairing Apison after it was wrecked by storms last year.

FINAL DAMAGE REPORTS


• Bradley: Six homes destroyed, 13 homes with major damage, 20 with minor, 48 homes otherwise affected.

• Hamilton: 30 homes with major damage, 20 with minor, 100 homes otherwise affected. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation deployed to Island Cove Marina for 1,000-gallon fuel spill. Cleanup is ongoing.

• McMinn: 11 homes destroyed, 10 homes with major damage, seven with minor, 33 homes otherwise affected.

• Monroe: 33 homes destroyed, 28 homes with major damage, 38 with minor, 65 homes otherwise affected.

• Polk: Seven homes destroyed, eight homes with major damage and seven with minor, two homes otherwise affected.

Source: Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Tim Johnson agreed that there's a lot of camaraderie among disaster responders.

"It's like a second family," he said.

Jacob Jenkins, whose father's house was damaged in the weekend storms, saw whole families walking down the street, chain saws in hand, looking where they could do the most good.Amid the volunteers were electricians looking to restart service to areas left powerless in the storm.

An EPB spokeswoman said Sunday that only 90 of its customers still were without power, and many of those will have to wait for repairs or rebuilding to be completed. The Tennessee Valley Authority estimated that nearly 5,000 subscribers in its service area were still in the dark, and though as many as 26,000 Volunteer Electric Cooperative customers lost power at some point in the past few days, that number is thought now to be closer to 4,000.

More organized volunteer groups provided assistance as well, such as the Salvation Army, whose food trucks feed survivors and volunteers alike.

In areas inaccessible by car, they bring food in hand-drawn wagons. In the coming weeks, they will provide clothes and toiletries, and as residents begin to rebuild, will help them afford furnishings and appliances.

Chattanooga Salvation Army Maj. Al Newsome said that the organization might spend up to two years helping victims of the recent tornados get back on their feet.

Newsome also noted that though the local chapter raised $380,000 last year, it has spent nearly twice that in the area since April, and recently committed another half a million dollars.

While many volunteers such as Open House are largely self-taught, Newsome cautions against venturing into disaster areas without training.

He said the Salvation Army provides education on serving food safely and waits for clearance before entering potentially hazardous zones. In doing so, volunteers and survivors have a greater chance of remaining safe.

However, Newsome's greatest fear is that the county will abandon the area too early.

He said that the government has been very helpful in securing road access to emergency vehicles and cleaning up but is afraid that the sheriff's department already is making exit strategies that would cripple long-term plans to remove debris from people's property.

And property damage is major. One survivor remarked that his 600-pound gun safe was ripped off the wall of his garage. Days later, he can't find the safe. He can't even find his garage.

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