In storm's wake, acts of bravery and charity
WARTBURG, TENN. — Clutching a muddy teddy bear, Beverly Peters scours the wreckage a day after a dual-headed twister destroyed much of this community in the shadow of Lone Mountain.
The obliteration was both searing and surreal: lawn mowers dangled from trees, old Dodge trucks sat overturned amid piles of clothing and sofa cushions, homes were scattered like chaff.
All seven of Ms. Peters's children had hunkered in the path of the storm. All survived, in a town where seven others didn't. But their residences, including a mobile home that had blown onto Route 62 in Morgan County, were all destroyed. "We've lost everything, but God has still been kind to us," says Ms. Peters.
Despite her obvious shock, Peters's stalwart attitude epitomizes the set jaws and tear-flooded eyes in the rural corners struck by a rare seven-state storm that killed at least 35 and injured hundreds of others Sunday.
While the weather system seemed to spare Nashville and other urban centers, it struck hard at tiny towns from Alabama to Ohio, testing the resolve of some of America's most traditional - and poorest - communities.
But if this were a test of a community's faith, the storms also deepened the natural resiliency of what many here call "the notch of the Bible Belt."
Even so, many were aghast at the fury of the storm. "It's the worst one I ever saw," says Sam Walker, a volunteer resting at a shelter right up the street from the local Coon Hunting Association building in Wartburg.
Indeed, an anxious Monday that began with 126 local people "unaccounted for" ended with only four still missing. Most reunions took place over the phone, others in shelters that were set up for victims.
"We're still hopeful the rest were either out of town or with family down in Oak Ridge [the nearest big town]," says Stacey Young, director of Big Emory Baptist Association's mission center.
In a scene similar to that of other ransacked areas, over 1,000 volunteers scattered across the 10-mile wide swath affected by the storm here in Morgan County, the hardest hit in the Volunteer State. Indeed, it's been 50 years since a storm of this intensity - with winds over 200 mph - struck Tennessee, a state that receives some 400 tornado strikes a year.
"It was like four or five trains rolling through the valley," says James, a local mechanic, as he took stock of his devastated property.
So quick was the twister that he and his wife didn't have time to hide in the basement. His hand was on the door when they were both knocked over, bricks and branches whirling over their heads. Both were unhurt, save a deep cut on a finger. Two neighbors, however, a man and his grandmother, lost their lives.
"I ain't never been through this kind of deal," he says.
In the aftermath of the stampeding twisters, there were many tales of bravery, too.
In a cinema in Van Wert, Ohio, the end credits had barely started rolling on "The Santa Clause 2" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when an alert theater manager shepherded 60 moviegoers to the safety of a bathroom. Moments later, the storm dumped two cars into the blue seats of one of the auditoriums.
Still, the 70 or so tornados that ransacked the country caused heavy losses. Twelve were killed in Alabama and five died in Ohio. Mississippi and Pennsylvania each lost one life to the storms. In Tennessee, 17 fatalities have been reported, including the death of one rescue worker.
At the Wartburg Civic Center, David Howard was counting his blessings. After crashing "like a bomb" into the tiny community of Mossy Grove, the twister skipped over Lone Mountain only to strike on the other side of the mountain, skipping Mr. Howard's house in its leap.
But as he looked around a huge room stuffed full of donated clothes and cots, the bearded volunteer was as struck by the outpouring of support as by the utter devastation of the powerful storms. Despite the despair, he offered a broad smile to the victims hulking through the door.
"You're dealing with real Americana here," he says. "These are earthy people living in very traditional communities, and they blow my mind."
At James's house, eight men had been working all day, and as night fell Monday, cleanup fires began burning. "I know everyone in this valley, and they just help people out," says James.
Beverly Peters's son-in-law also joined in the rescue, even pulling one woman from a flashflood that followed the twister. When the search was called off at 2 a.m. Monday morning because of open gas lines and a concern that more twisters could emerge, a protest rippled through the crowd.
But there was more than community spirit here. Without much paid outside help, it was up to local cops and forest rangers, not to mention teams of overall-wearing locals, to take up the search and rescue.
"This is a poor area; they have to volunteer," says Diane Thorne, whose volunteer fireman husband helped lead the search.
The storms began after a weekend of unusually hot fall weather. One local man, Jeff, was hunting atop a nearby peak when he felt a blast of heat and watched the thunderstorms roll in over the steep hills. "The whole sky was on fire," he says.
During Monday, crews with dogs moved through the valley, searching for the missing. There was no telling where people could be found. Some items had blown across Lone Mountain from Mossy Grove, five miles away.
Despite the hard-nosed attitude of many volunteers, the loss was still too huge for many to comprehend, especially as daylight stretched across what many called "incredible" devastation across the region.
Ms. Peters was stuck between fright and tears. A grandchild found a tape of a graduation in the pile of rubble. But a videotape of "daddy's funeral" could not be found. By the look of the destruction, it could be anywhere on this mountain.