Mark Wiedmer: Chattanooga families reflect on life since Easter 2020 tornadoes

·5 min read

Apr. 4—Scott Farley didn't think much about the long view of what was happening to him in the final minutes of Easter 2020. He was too busy making sure his wife Susan and their daughters Caroline and Catherine were safely inside the windowless half-bathroom of the Autumn Chase subdivision house they'd called home for 18 years before a monster EF-3 tornado arrived that night to rip it to shreds.

"But every day since then I've thought, 'I'm just happy to be alive,'" he said from the family's rental home Saturday.

The official one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado outbreak in the Tennessee Valley isn't until April 12. That's when seven tornadoes roared through the Chattanooga area on Easter between 8 p.m. and midnight to destroy billions of dollars worth of property and cut short 10 lives.

"I don't get too caught up in dates," said Tyner principal Gerald Harris, whose home of 13 years in the Drake Forest subdivision was severely damaged. "But what I'll reflect on the rest of my life is how my family, so many friends and lots of neighbors didn't get hurt. You can make adjustments in life, but you can't replace lives. I thank the Lord every day for that."

This is not to say there haven't been obstacles along the way. Harris, like far too many of his East Brainerd neighbors, has struggled with insurance companies to get the funds needed to rebuild or relocate.

"When our home was first hit, we needed a new roof, a few windows, nothing much else," he said. "But because the insurance company wouldn't settle, our house has had major water damage, we got mold and now it's basically gutted. Now it looks like we won't be back in the house until August or later."

The Farleys didn't try to rebuild their home. Because it was basically flattened, they chose to start over elsewhere, selling the lot.

"The new owners are building a house on it now," Scott said. "I hope they'll be as happy there as we were. We're still deciding whether to build or buy."

In some ways, it seems like two years instead of one, given all we've all been through since Easter 2020. A new level of racial unrest. COVID-19. A divisive presidential election. An insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"A tough year," Harris said. "But I've never questioned anything that God's done."

Harris has questioned his family's temporary move to the relative suburban quiet of Ooltewah.

"I'm a city guy," he said with a chuckle. "I'm not used to no street lights and deer everywhere."

And both the Harris family and the Farley family understandably become uncomfortable when a storm warning arrives, as with the recent tornado threat.

"You get a little nervous," Harris said.

Said Scott Farley: "We've all had some version of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). When the tornadoes were forecast a couple of weeks ago, we were probably dramatically overprepared for that."

Added Susan: "After the tornado, I bought a survival kit on Amazon that was supposed to be everything four people would need to survive for three days. It wasn't cheap, but I thought $200 wasn't a bad price to pay for peace of mind."

Harris still isn't sure what all his family lost.

Thanks to family and neighbors swiftly packing up their belongings and placing then in storage, the former basketball star at Tyner and Middle Tennessee State University said, "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't think of something — maybe my favorite jersey or my Tyner letter jacket — and wonder, 'Now was that lost in the tornado or is it in storage somewhere?' I may not have the answer until we move back into our house."

Said Susan Farley on the same subject: "I know the amount we own now is much less. My attachment to things seems so much less important. We still have all the girls' baby pictures. For all we lost, not a single piece of crystal was damaged in our china cabinet. I've kind of been dreading the arrival of Easter and April 12, but today I just feel gratitude for all we still have."

Scott Farley feels a huge debt of gratitude to a former weather anchor at News Channel 9 who lost her job when Sinclair Broadcast Group downsized its staff a few weeks ago.

"Erin Thomas was the last voice I heard before we went to our half-bath," Scott recalled. "She said, 'If you're in East Brainerd, get to your safe place immediately.' When she was laid off, I took it personally. This was the person who may have saved my family's life."

At some point on Easter morning, Harris and his wife Martina will visit New Hope Baptist Church online or in person to give thanks for all the lives saved in their neighborhood. At about that same time, the Farleys will return to First Centenary United Methodist Church to do the same.

Said Scott: "I could go on for hours and not say enough about how much the people at First Centenary, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School (where Scott teaches), Graysville Elementary (where Susan teaches in Ringgold), and the Ringgold High band (of which his daughters are members) have helped us. It's been amazing."

Harris noted something similar.

"In many ways, this tragedy has brought out the best in people. We've witnessed so much kindness this past year," he said.

It may never again be as it once was in those East Brainerd neighborhoods such as Holly Hills, Autumn Chase and Drake Forest. It will take decades for new trees to grow tall, houses to age gracefully, bad memories to fade.

But in as perfect a summation as possible for both the tornado victims and so many of the rest of us these past 12 months, Susan Farley said this: "The theme of resurrection is not lost on me. This could have been so much worse. We've come out on the other side and we're OK."

Could any words better sum up the lesson of the Easter story?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.