Friday’s Storms

Where do I even begin?

Part of me wants to just post the photos and be done with it, but the other part of me wants to write about it. I need to write about it, I need to jot it all down before I begin to lose sight of the details.

This is gonna be a long one, so bear with me.

On Friday, March 2nd, two outbreaks of severe storms tore through the Chattanooga area. According to our website, 75 tornado warnings were issued in Tennessee in a total of nine hours and there was one confirmed touchdown in our county. You can read the full story here.

Friday morning, for me, started off like any other. We had been completely slammed with assignments lately, so when I got to the newsroom and saw only two assignments in my box, I was relieved. I’d be able to devote a significant amount of time to each assignment and I’d also have some time in the afternoon to finish up some sorting and editing and some research for my next Moment. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about news in the past two months, it’s that NOTHING goes as planned. Ever.

I got back to the office about noon, sat down at the computer, loaded my photos and began tagging. I noticed it looked dark outside, but honestly, it didn’t look that bad. Just another cloudy day, right? But I had an uneasy feeling. The newsroom was in a frenzy. All the TVs were tuned to the weather, everyone was huddled around them with concerned looks. Jim Tanner, assistant sports editor, looked at me and said, “it’s looking a lot like last April around here…”

And so it began, the meteorologist issues a warning, tells everyone in that area to take cover. In one ear, I hear the meteorologist shouting about a tornado, shouting that people needed to take cover, shouting that this is a very serious situation. In the other ear, I’m being told to get in my car and chase it. So I do.

Luckily, I was teamed up with reporter, Mariann Martin. We decided to take my car – it was bigger, sturdier, and Mariann could navigate and talk with our editors while I drove. With Mariann on the phone, we followed this thing off Mountain Creek Road, through Hixson, got stuck in traffic on 58, and finally arrived at Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, which was determined to receive the most significant damage from the storm. I’m gonna be honest, when we first arrived, I saw downed trees, fallen power lines, police and fire crew everywhere, but it didn’t seem that bad. But the further we went, the worse it got. This is where I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves. Lewis Hine once wrote, “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” I can’t tell this story in words. I can’t tell you how bad it was. All I can do is try to show you.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Authorities make their way up Short Tail Springs Road on Friday afternoon after a tornado struck the area in Harrison. The tornado has since been classified as an EF3.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Fire crews make their way up Short Tail Springs Road on Friday afternoon after a tornado struck the area in Harrison.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Ann Payne stands in a church parking lot as she attempts to reach her 82-year-old mother who lived in an area that was hard-hit by the tornado.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Harrison resident Bobby Simmons walks down Short Tail Springs Road Friday afternoon after Friday’s tornado.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012.  A home off of Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, Tenn., was badly damaged by the tornado that swept through the area Friday afternoon.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Sean Case, 22, stands on Short Tail Springs Road Friday afternoon after his clothes were ripped as he climbed through fallen power lines and trees to reach his mother, who lived in the area. Case said authorities told him he would be arrested if he walked down the road, but he was so worried about his mother, he ran towards their home anyway.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Sean Case, 22, walks down Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison Friday afternoon. Case lives in Ooltewah, but arrived in Harrison shortly after the storms to try to find his mother who lives on Short Tail Springs Rd.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. A Harrison resident talks with Times Free Press reporter, Mariann Martin, as he makes his way down Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison Friday afternoon seeking medical attention for what he believed to be a broken arm. The man said he was thrown 150 ft into the woods and the clothes were ripped from his body.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. An American flag lies tangled in branches  in Harrison, Tenn. Friday afternoon after a tornado swept through the region destroying numerous homes.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Mail remains in a mailbox in front of a damaged home in Harrison, Tenn. Friday afternoon after a tornado swept through the region destroying numerous homes.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. A birdhouse remains standing on a lot in Harrison, Tenn. Friday afternoon after a tornado swept through the region destroying numerous homes.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Police authorities make their way up Short Tail Springs Road on Friday afternoon after a tornado touched down in the area, destroying numerous homes in the area.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Power crews arrive in Harrison Friday afternoon.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. A Harrison resident talks to Times Free Press reporter, Mariann Martin, Friday afternoon after his home was destroyed by Friday’s tornado that touched down in Harrison. He found his cat under a cabinet in the debris of his home. His mother passed away only 2 weeks ago and he said that he was thankful she didn’t have to witness Friday’s storms.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. The house of Jim and Jennie Hood, located on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, was completely destroyed by Friday’s tornado.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. A Chevrolet SUV belonging to Jim and Jennie Hood sits crushed under the debris from their home after Friday afternoon’s tornado.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. The house of Jim and Jennie Hood, located on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, was completely destroyed by Friday’s tornado. The keys remained in the door after the storms.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. The house of Jim and Jennie Hood, located on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, was completely destroyed by Friday’s tornado. Family and friends arrived to help the couple sort through their belongings before the next round of storms Friday evening.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. The house of Jim and Jennie Hood, located on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, was completely destroyed by Friday’s tornado. Family and friends arrived to help the couple sort through their belongings before the next round of storms Friday evening.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Jennie Hood stands near her belongings after a tornado hit and completely tore down the home she shares with her husband, Jim, on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison on Friday afternoon. Jennie Hood hid under the staircase as the tornado hit.

Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 2, 2012. Husband and wife, Jim and Jennie Hood, embrace after a tornado hit and completely tore down their home on Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison on Friday afternoon. The couple searched through the rubble for salvageable items before the next round of storms hit Friday evening.

One of the most surprising things about covering my first tornado was how willing people were to talk. And how happy they were, despite the fact that they’re standing in a pile of toothpicks, what used to be their home. They were just happy to be alive. Their attitudes were incredible and so admirable. I’ll never forget that. They just lost everything, but they were so willing to share their story with us.

As we were chasing the tornado, as we were climbing through rubble, sinking through sheetrock, as we were jumping over downed power lines, climbing through barbed-wire fences and under trees, as we walked up the demolished street, I couldn’t believe I was getting to cover this. Two years ago, I fell into the photojournalism program. Two years ago, I followed around Macon Telegraph Staff Photographer, Grant Blankenship, asking a million + questions. “What is ISO?”…”How do you know what shutter speed to set the camera on?”…”What’s this button do?”…”This is hard.” I remember thinking, as we took photos at a hair salon, and later that night at a high school football game, that’d I’d never be able to do this. But there I was, in what looked like a war-zone, doing my best to capture what had just happened. I was being trusted to cover this. Funny, the way life works. And really, really bizarre.

Here are a few photos of Mariann covering the tornado Friday afternoon. I owe a HUGE ‘thank you’ to Mariann for holding my hand, pulling me up steep embankments, holding my cameras (it’s hard to climb through rubble with 20 lbs around your shoulder), and just being absolutely determined to cover this thing as much as we could.

We got back to the office around 6pm, just in time for yet another severe storm to hit. Golfball-sized hail began falling from the sky around 6:30. My beautiful 3-month-old Jeep entered the car-hospital this morning for multiple hood and roof dents. I can’t say that I didn’t sit sobbing on the roof of my car, counting the dents, in a gas station parking lot, with my dad on speaker phone. But I can say that I’m so ashamed I’m torn up about my car. I watched as families searched through rubble to find their clothes and photos. I talked to a boy that was my age, who climbed through downed trees and power lines to try to find his mom. I comforted a lady who was being held back by police, unable to get in touch with her 82-year-old mother who lived up the road. People lost their homes. People lost their cars. People lost their pets. There’s been no reports of deaths in our area, thank God. But how can I be upset about a few dents in my car? It’s replaceable, it’s fixable. I’m the lucky one, and I need to remember that.

And despite the horrible, horrible situation, I did wake up Saturday morning to one of my photos on the front page slideshow of the New York Times website. Then I started getting texts and calls from people saying my photos were on weather.comYahoo, and abcnews. Considering that three months ago I was sitting in a classroom fretting endlessly about where I was going to end up, it felt pretty good. It’s not a huge deal, really. In a situation like that, it’s fairly easy to make photos that stand out, but I did print it off and put it in a box. Might be a cool story to tell one day. I guess.

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