The community that has come to the rescue of so many others now knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of generosity, as countless out-of-state volunteers and more than 20 other electric power crews streamed into Bradley County to assist a community known for its self-sacrificing spirit.
Residents noted the one thing the storm was unable to destroy was the willing spirit of a community ready to offer assistance, comfort and prayers to those who needed it most. Family and friends came from near and far to assist loved ones in need.
Truck driver Rob Miller and his family drove 560 miles from Indiana the day after 5 to 7 tornadoes ravaged Bradley County to help Larry and Linda Manning of Cleveland. The couple had a massive tree smash through their home and destroy every part of the house except the areas that were occupied.
“Larry told me about it that morning,” said Miller. “After I got done with my load I jumped in my truck and came on down here. Larry means the world to me. We’re cousins but he’s like my brother.”
“It’s a miracle we made it through it because we were home,” said Larry.
“My mom was in the back bedroom and I was actually in the hallway when it happened. It sounded like a train. Then all of a sudden it got quiet. The next thing I knew it was a loud boom like an explosion.
“That might have been when the tree fell — I don’t know. Then the wind was unbelievable — the pressure. It was almost like it was just sucking the life out of you — draining you. It was unreal. Then it was gone. When I looked up the roof was gone. We’re glad to be here.”
Melissa Davis, who lives off Benton Pike, said the volunteers who worked on their electrical lines told her the residents of Bradley County were “some of the nicest people they ever helped.”
“They said some residents in other states would sit on the porch and watch them work. But the people here were asking if they can help,” said Davis.
“They were asking, ‘Can we get you something to eat or something to drink? Can we help? We don’t have any power but we’re barbecuing on the grill. Can we fix you a burger? That impressed many of the volunteers.”
At a time when it means more to act than to talk, to give than receive, many volunteers put their best foot forward.
“I had a bunch of people from college I use to hang out with and they wanted to volunteer,” said Travis Arnold, a native New Yorker living in Cleveland for the past decade. “So we called Red Cross and they started giving me their volunteers.
“I organized a relief center in Will-brook (subdivision) where about 10 houses were completely flattened. We set up a station there with food and water — the governor came through and saw the need out there. They brought us porta-potties, The Salvation Army is also working with us.”
Arnold and other volunteers set up another group of volunteers around areas that he called “pockets of devastation,” like Archer Lane off Dalton Pike.
“It’s so widespread,” he said. “It’s been hard to get to. So we’ve worked with Bradley County medical and rescue services. They’ve coordinated with us and given us spots to go to.”
Arnold, a special education teacher, said “I could not see something like this happen and not do anything. When you see people like this in complete devastation — I don’t think you’re human if you don’t have a heart to help.
“When you see someone’s mobile home wrapped around a tree or an 80-year-old woman sitting on top of what was her house — staring with tears running down her face — that’s when it hits you. If it was me, I would be so in shock I couldn’t help myself. So it’s very important that people help.”
Patricia Graby and Maria Alvarado, students at Dalton State College, were among a group of social workers from Ringgold, Ga., and other areas, who wanted to assist in cleanup efforts, saying, “This is the least that we could do.”
“When I saw the devastation I was unable to go home and sit on my couch or lay in my bed and see everyone else’s house gone. It’s my responsibility as a human being and a social worker to serve others,” said Graby. “It’s just so devastating. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bobby Orr, owner of Tennessee Produce and Garden Center in Cleveland, said one of the tornadoes ripped the roof off the building where he does business, flattened a barn and destroyed a porch. Orr and a few of volunteers were out the very next day to do repairs.
“That building is just materials,” he said. “I don’t worry about that. I worry about life. God took care of us. He didn’t allow us to be injured. We’re grateful for that. We can always build back. I’ve started from scratch before.”
Debra and Scott Hagel of Cleveland said they will never know how they made it out of the tornado’s path alive without God’s help.
“If you have been to our house you know that the sky was not visible (from the property) because of so many trees,” said Debra. “Now we have about five left. More than 50 friends showed up to volunteer their help in the last two days. We have no electricity yet, but we are well and alive, so no complaints!”
According to Debra, worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles; it takes away today’s peace. So the family is counting their blessings while volunteers remove logs and debris from around their home.
Although the 170 mph winds slung trees all over their property, even flattening several vehicles, the Hagels’ home suffered minimal damage and the family came out unscathed. The experience, however, left Debra and her family eager to live in a world without natural disasters.
“I hope everyone will attend the ‘Let Your Kingdom Come’ convention in Dalton, (Ga.) in July and August so they can be comforted by hearing about all the things Jesus is going to do as King of that kingdom, especially that he will have the authority to say to the wind, ‘Hush, be quiet, and a great calm will set in’ as Mark 4:37-40 says,” added Debra.
Although she was at home when the tornadoes hit, Barbra Liner, a local volunteer, said her house is fine. But three miles up the road was not as fortunate.
“We’re handing out water and snacks to anyone who needs them,” said Liner, who teamed with a group of local volunteers to make sandwiches and distribute refreshments to anyone who was hungry or thirsty.
A U.S. Marine on leave, Michael Landron, also decided to come out and help. Josh Ledford, a construction worker in Cleveland, was out applying the Golden Rule, explaining, “I’m trying to help people out because you never know — it could have been us. You’d want somebody there for you.”
Hundreds of volunteers working under the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Bradley Baptist Association and Men and Women of Action are continuing their relief efforts in the county.
Georgetown resident Linda Crisp said she wanted to help her friends who lived in one of the hardest hit areas on Archer Lane. Dennis Swafford, who has lived in Cleveland for 38 years, admits he has never seen anything like the twisters that tore through Bradley County on April 27.
“I was in the bathtub in a bathroom in the back,” said the 66-year old. Regarding the volunteers working in his neighborhood and repairing his neighbor’s house, Swafford said, “This has been really great! The support has been really good! I think Cleveland will bounce back and maybe be even stronger. I certainly hope so.”
While some residents said they felt “too blessed to be stressed” about their material losses, others remain shocked at the level of death and sheer devastation. Now that residents have gone from destruction to construction, many are holding on to their faith that the promise of better days are yet ahead.
The May 1 Presidential declaration made funding available to individuals affected by the tornadoes in Bradley County, the hardest hit county in the state. Assistance is available in the form of grants for basic home repairs, rental assistance, low-interest loans and other serious disaster-related needs.
Renters, homeowners and business owners can apply for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is located at 10 Church St. at the corner of Inman.
To register online, visit www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Financial donations to the Salvation Army and the Hiwassee Chapter of the American Red Cross are still needed.