Dispatch from Ringgold: Bird's Eye View
Traveling to tornado-ravaged Ringgold with men from Snellville United Methodist was an eye-opener.
Of course, I had to go.
More than 340 people -- and the number continues to grow -- were killed last week in the second-deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. There are still hundreds missing and unaccounted for throughout the Southeast.
Here, in Gwinnett County, we were spared. But, 120 miles north of us in Ringgold, at least 8 people were confirmed dead from an EF4 twister that packed winds of 175 mph. Only nine EF4 tornadoes, including this one, have struck Georgia since 1950.
So, when I learned that Snellville United Methodist Church was headed up north to help, I had to go.
Riding to Ringgold, I peered out the window and looked for any indication that a deadly tornado had come for a visit. But, it wasn't until we crossed the city line, that it truly become real.
Police checkpoints. Army vehicles. Georgia Power trucks -- everywhere. People walking over downed electric lines, glass and trees. Entire buildings now piles of scrap wood. Unless you were there before, it's hard to know what some of the buildings used to be.
By the time we finally got to Ringgold United Methodist Church, it was clear that we weren't going any farther into the city limits. FEMA had taken over. Joe Barger, the mayor of Ringgold, was in meetings. So, Curtis Barger, the mayor's son, pointed out that Cherokee Valley -- on the edge of Ringgold -- had suffered catastrophic loss.
With the Army National Guard leading the way, we drove to this little area, where an entire subdivision just wasn't there anymore. Here, people had definitely died. No one had to tell you that.
There were at least seven deaths: Chelsea Black, 16; Pamela Black, 46; Cody Black, 21; Christopher Black, 47; Holly Readus, 26; Robert Jones, 47; and Jack Estep, 61. And, just when folks in Cherokee Valley thought search and recovery was over, volunteers say they heard yet another body had been discovered on Saturday.
The scene in Cherokee Valley silenced a lot of the Snellville volunteers. Every once in a while, one of the men would stare out over the destruction, locked in thought. It very well could have been them sifting through rubble, and they understood this.
The Catoosa County residents they met carried an undefeated spirit. Grief pushed aside to focus on survival. Neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. Hugs and handshakes handed out unencumbered.
I got one of those hugs from Mike Roe, who has lived in this area for 25 years. His family lived, but a couple of his friends did not survive the Wednesday evening tornado. He thanked me for just coming to see how they were doing. Me, the reporter.
In that moment when a person you are interviewing breaks down into tears, or reaches out for a shoulder to steady them, you realize that these people simply need someone to talk to. You're a reporter, but you're also human. It's a fine line, I must say from becoming part of the story. (We all saw how this fine line affected reporters after Hurricane Katrina.)
I don't like seeing devastation like that in Catoosa County. I don't like asking people about the worst moments in their lives. I know they lend themselves to well-told, well-covered, once-in-lifetime type stories. But, tragedies like this are never fun. Never. I was not taking a field trip.
I volunteered to go to Ringgold because I was compelled to chronicle the silver lining in such a tragic circumstance. The folks from Snellville United Methodist Church could have stayed home. They definitely had other things they could have been doing. Instead, they each asked themselves what they could do to help.
In this tragedy, both the victims and the volunteers unveiled a central truth. Unbridled humanity does indeed exist.
It was a lesson for everyone.
This is the first in a three-part series.