People rarely know where they are going to be when disaster strikes. For those in the Collegedale area, they — like the rest of the world — were in the middle of a pandemic crisis.
When she saw the warning of a spotted tornado and heard the winds begin to pick up, Southern enrollment counselor Kayla Rodriguez hid inside of her tub with her sister.
Senior accounting major Dakota Bemis and his family barely made it to their crawl space before trees began to snap.
Religion professor Alan Parker and his family ran to shelter in their neighbor’s basement.
Senior education major Albert Diaz and senior marketing major Abigale Choi both found themselves in closets in different parts of town.
And for Choi, even days later, the reality of it all was still hard to believe.
“I’m definitely in shock still,” Choi wrote in a message to the Accent on Instagram. “I’m exhausted, and I think I’m just [so] busy trying to clean and help others that the full reality of what happened hasn’t quite hit yet. Every time I start to think about it, I just feel sick to my stomach. Lives were lost Sunday night. People lost their homes and everything in it, and I just can’t wrap my head around it all.”
Facing the Storm
On the night of April 12 and early the next morning, an outbreak of severe weather spread across the South. An EF-3 tornado blew through the Collegedale area, leaving a path of destruction from North Georgia to the East Brainerd-Hamilton Place area, into Ooltewah and dissipated in Bradley County according to the National Weather Service and Hamilton County.
Up to 60,000 Electric Power Board (EPB) customers lost electricity according to their website, including much of Southern’s campus. While around 38,000 have had power restored as of April 16, there are still communities waiting as repairs, according to EPB, could take up until next week Tuesday, April 21.
According to reports by the Times Free Press and News Channel 9, more than 20 people were taken to the hospital and at least 12 people died between southeast Tennessee and North Georgia.
These numbers include three from Hamilton County, including a 4-year-old toddler whose story was shared extensively on social and news media platforms as his mother asked for prayers for his recovery.
State of the university
While according to Campus Safety Southern’s campus saw minimal structural damage, the storm caused a campus-wide Wi-Fi and power outage for about two days, except for in Wright Hall and the Village Market, which ran on generators.
Because these outages extended to many faculty members and students in the area and made web services such as eClass unreliable, distance learning instruction was canceled for the following week, from April 13-17.
“This extended cancelation makes an already difficult semester more challenging, with an added loss of a week’s worth of instruction,” wrote David Smith, president, in an email to faculty. “I apologize for this, but there is no other alternative, especially since this new event adds further frustration and stress to our students.”
For students in the area, the storm is another blow to the normalcy of life in college.
On Tuesday, Bemis found himself in a Walmart parking lot in order to get phone coverage. At the time, his power was still off and the stress of the storm on top of school and coronavirus concerns just seemed to be too much.
“Especially with the storm, it’s just it’s really stressful thinking about my assignments that I have to do,” he said on Tuesday. “Because I don’t have electricity, I can’t charge my computer. I can’t go to Starbucks to get Wi-Fi and power. So it’s overwhelming because I don’t know. I don’t know anything and being the person I am I like simple things. I think it puts me in a very stressful state. So I’ve been very on edge the past couple days.”
On Monday, Choi decided to share her story and plea for action from the university while sitting in her car at the top of a hill in hopes of finding cell service. She wrote that while she was a good student, her priorities and entire life had been adjusted, something she said many students could relate to.
“We’re all suffering in one way or another, life as we know it has come to an end,” she wrote in her Instagram post. “It seems to be one thing on top of the next and school has quite literally been the last thing on my mind. So I am asking that you please be patient with us. I am asking that you let our voices be heard, that you give us a vote on what is happening to us academically.”
In an email to students, Smith called for professors to make adjustments to class structures and schedules as a week of instruction would be lost and many students were now in even less of a position to fully focus on school. He reiterated this point in a similar email to faculty.
The university administration is also currently looking into further academic accommodations, after over 100 students sent in emails after a proposal for the option to have pass/fail grading was declined.
Concern for the spread of the coronavirus still looms, something Rodriguez feels will make the time harder as people aren’t able to comfort others in ways they would have previously.
“You can’t even come together as a community because you’re still worried about getting sick!” she wrote.
But despite the concern, people have still found a way to provide support as the virus becomes secondary in the face of a loss of life and possessions.
For example, the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists is working to organize volunteers to provide assistance to those in need. Those interested in finding ways to help or to request help can visit collegedalechurch.com/tornadorelief. Local government resources can also be found at collegedaletn.gov.
In the early hours after the storm and into the next few days, city officials asked that most citizens stay home because of downed power lines and trees and to give better access to emergency workers who searched to locate those who may be trapped.
Initially, Parker and a group of volunteers ventured out on Monday to help a fellow church member. But when they saw there were others they could assist, they stayed.
One lady tried to turn his group away as she didn’t have any funds to pay them, but was moved to tears when they assured her they were just there to help, free of charge.
“I’ve just been amazed by the kindness of everyone everywhere,” Parker said. “When there is a pressing need in a time of crisis it seems to bring out the best in the worst of us…and I’ve seen a lot of people coming together.”
Southern students and employees can also reach out to the school for assistance if needed.
Looking towards the future
Now in the aftermath of the storm, Diaz emphasized the importance of reaching out to friends and family members during this time to check on not only physical but the mental wellbeing of those in the area.
“Some people might not have gotten affected directly by getting their house blown away, but mentally this is just one of those things that no one sees coming,” he said. “No one’s ready for it.”
Despite all of the uncertainty and destruction, while times are tough, the serving spirit of the local community gives Diaz hope for the future.
“This city will bounce back,” Diaz said. “I met people in my neighborhood that jumped to help so quickly with people that had a lot of damages even if they didn’t know them. The people in this city look out for each other.”