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May 31, 2011

Responders deal with aftermath of tornado tragedies

Joy Lukachick
Chattanooga Times Free Press

RINGGOLD, Ga. — When the high-pitched call for an emergency sounds across the ambulance radio, Chad Hullender's adrenaline kicks in.

Who is the caller seeking assistance? How will he be able to help? Such questions and others rush through his mind as the ambulance cuts through the night or weaves through the red lights.

But Hullender, a 10-year EMT with Angel Emergency Services, said the tornadoes of April 27 have cast a shadow on his work. The images of the mass destruction, the wounded as they walked like zombies from the rubble and the sight of families digging through their belongings run through his mind. Often they haunt his dreams.

"It's still going on in my head," he said.

Witnessing such massive destruction, especially in the town where you went to school, knowing that many of the familiar places are gone and residents are dead, can take a toll on anyone, say mental health counselors who work with emergency responders.

"Most people had never seen that type of devastation," said Neal Brown, a Southern Cross Ministries chaplain who works with agencies in Catoosa and Walker counties.

As hundreds of emergency workers across the tri-state region rallied to the scenes of devastation a month ago, many police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and emergency service technicians responded in their own backyards.

Many Ringgold natives drove up to piles of rubble along Alabama Highway and the flattened homes where seven died on Cherokee Valley Road.

Overall, 77 people were found dead in the tri-state area and workers searched at least 2,050 damaged or destroyed homes in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, officials said.

Brown -- who drives a well-known sport utility vehicle emblazoned with the word "chaplain" in bright orange -- has spent long hours talking with first responders who trust him to keep their stories confidential. Sometimes emergency officials have a hard time admitting their own struggles, said Brown, who is also a licensed EMT.

"Whether it's law enforcement, fire service or EMS, there is a little bit of an ego there. They don't want anybody to think that they're bothered by these things," he said.

Dealing with stress
Each day after the storm, Lana Duff, the operations manager for Angel EMS, and owner Dewayne Wilson pulled their employees aside and had one-on-one interviews to see how they were handling the stress.

The supervisors were looking for "any signs of stress or anger ... not being rational, anything that would be out of context for that employee," Duff said.

"It's been a tough situation for everybody," said Bradley County Fire Chief Dewey Woody. "Our folks are human beings ... they deal with emotions like everyone else."

When Dalton Fire Department Capt. Chris Cox responded to the disaster the first night, he ran into many Catoosa County emergency workers that he knew.

"We know a lot of the guys from Catoosa, and some of us work down there part time," he said. "They had a lot to deal with."

The week after the storm, some of the most strenuous work focused on searches for missing residents. Many volunteered to help, even when they were off the clock.

"It was hard to stay away," said Chris Downey, an EMT with Hamilton County's volunteer search and rescue team. "We wanted to go back if there was anything we could do."

Four days after the tornado hit, Downey's crew began to tire. After combing through wreckage and cutting through the woods in Apison for 12 hours in the heat, Downey said he got a call about a person possibly alive on a ridge several miles away off Cherokee Valley Road.

Downey and other team members hopped into his truck and raced for the road. But the sky was dark when the team arrived, and they also had to wait for a bulldozer to begin a search.

With headlamps and chain saws, Downey and his team began hacking their way down the ridge behind the bulldozer. Hours later, one of Downey's teammates cut his knee with the teeth of his chain saw.

At 3 a.m. with no success, the team realized "that was enough," Downey said.

"Later we found out the person we heard was alive was someone they heard yelling on the mountain, so whether that was a coyote or a bobcat, we never found out," he said.

Other agency employees traveled several hours to volunteer with the cleanup.

A group from the Manchester, Tenn., Public Safety Office showed up at Dade County Sheriff Patrick Cannon's doorstep.

Cannon's home was destroyed. The Manchester folks helped clear trees and debris before going around town to volunteer, he said. The group stayed 10 days.

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"That's the biggest thing that's touched my heart," Cannon said.