Concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic were placed on the back burner when a tornado destroyed more than 150 buildings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Easter Sunday.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – Picking over soggy pine needles, downed power lines and tree branches the next morning, Cynthia Dewild took solace in the advice of the late Fred Rogers to look for the helpers when tragedy strikes.
She was out Monday morning photographing the responders in her neighborhood, such as a man operating a red tractor trying to pull a log lying on the side of the road.
The retired nurse observed Easter Sunday watching some events on television and was up reading when she got the alert on her phone shortly before 11:30 p.m. telling her to take immediate shelter. Her house on a hill in eastern Chattanooga was in the path of a tornado.
It was one of several to rip across the South late Easter evening, killing at least six people in south Mississippi and damaging up to 300 homes and other buildings in northern Louisiana.
Storms continued to batter the South overnight, with much of the region under flash flood, tornado and thunderstorm warnings and watches.
Covering herself with pillows in her hallway and holding her rat terrier mix who was going “literally berserk,” Dewild’s house began to tremble and shake and she heard the ominous sound of a train. She expected to experience pain as she prayed a three-word plea: “Lord help us! Lord help us!”
At a news conference later Monday afternoon, city officials said the tornado that left a path of wreckage a half mile wide and four miles long killed two and sent 17 to the hospital. More than 150 buildings in Chattanooga are damaged.
Smelling gas and without power or water, Dewild stayed in her home until morning, when she had to climb over brush and trees to survey her neighborhood.
“My neighbor across the street, I can see what’s hanging in their closet from my front porch. It’s pretty bad. But the goodness of humanity,” she said as she pointed out a group of people attempting to pull branches further off the road. “These people aren’t 6 feet apart because they can’t be right now. They’ve got a job to do … They’re out here doing it and helping people. And God bless ’em.”
The EF3 tornado chewed the shingles off houses, splattered their walls with bits of leaves and green matter and left hillsides of trees black toothpicks. The smell of fresh, green wood filled the air in the path of destruction. Cardinal songbirds flittered from broken tree branch to broken tree branch.
When much of the country has been told to stay home, wear masks and socially distance, the tornado loosened precautions taken to slow the spread of Covid-19. As of Monday, 103 people tested positive for the virus in Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, and 10 have died.
“In an extreme situation like this where rescues and saving lives is prevalent, it’s not that the Covid pandemic is less important, it’s just the saving lives is more important at this point in time,” Phil Hyman, Chattanooga’s fire chief, told reporters at a Baptist church used as a command center.
Signs on the church’s doors said because of Covid-19, the church offices were closed and there were no services being held on campus.
Hyman added the Chattanooga fire department has been sending personal protective equipment to first responders and some members of the community.
But only a handful of people in the path of destruction and a few first responders at the command center wore masks.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke told members of the community to stay away from the area because it would impede the work of the first responders, such as making traffic worse in an area where stop lights have gone dark.
“We’ve been telling people to stay home and now there are a bunch of people who have seen that part of their lives disrupted as well. It’s a significant, significant loss to people in our community,” Berke said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.