The year of 2016 is rapidly coming to a close, and a recent event has given me much to think about in the past few weeks that I feel I need to share here.
At 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 30, 2016, I was awoken by my cell phone alerting me that a tornado warning had been issued for McMinn County, where I live. Along with my family, we immediately implemented our emergency plans. While one of us stayed tuned to the radio and the television updates to track the exact path of the storm, the rest of us brought our pets to the basement before we all retreated there ourselves at approximately 1:15 a.m., well in advance of the storm’s expected arrival.
At approximately 1:25 a.m., the power went out (it would not be fully restored to our area until Friday, December 2, 2016.) At approximately 1:30 a.m., we heard what sounded like a mix between a freight train and a hundred whistles blowing at the same time. So I did what any normal person would do. I prayed and waited.
It wasn’t until much later that I was able to learn the true extent of the damage and realize just how fortunate I and my family truly was. The tornado in question was a strong EF2 with confirmed wind speeds of 130 miles per hour (an EF2 tornado has winds from 111-135 miles per hour). It touched down near downtown Athens about a quarter mile away from my office. It proceeded to destroy several businesses and homes before proceeding to County Highway 307, where it destroyed many homes, farms, and woodland area.
Humble but well-maintained trailers were demolished. Historic farm houses were damaged beyond repair. Brick homes were lifted off their foundations before being dropped back down. Fences were ruined. Trees were uprooted. Those trees fortunate enough to remain upright had metal and debris hanging from their branches.
As I continue to reflect on the damage, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of melancholy. Not only did the tornado damage the downtown area near where my office has been located for almost four years, but it has also wrought havoc to the area where I have called my home for decades.
I was lucky. My home was spared from the tornado’s wrath, with the only damage being several downed trees and some fence damage. But so many of my neighbors were not so fortunate, as many of them will be spending their respective Christmases and holidays in hotel rooms and whatever dwelling is available to them. And even now, almost one month later, the landscape continues to bare the scars of the tornado that will likely remain for many years to come.
And yet, even during these dark times, one thing has stood out to me and gives me hope. Almost immediately after the storm, County Highway 307, a road that doesn’t get that much traffic, was suddenly invaded by rescue workers, paramedics, police officers, TDOT workers, utility workers, volunteers, etc. And almost a full month later, they are still here. Every day I travel down my road and mourn the loss of my neighbors’ homes and the destruction of so much natural beauty that defines County Highway 307, I continue to see people here doing what they can to assist. People have donated time, money, and supplies. Businesses, churches, and homes have opened their doors. Volunteers, whether they are local or complete strangers, have spent time picking up debris.
Like the majority of Americans, be you Republican, Democrat, or Independent, I have grown disgusted by the continuous gripping and negativity coming from our federal government on all sides. I don’t blame any particular person or group, for logic dictates that when a conflict arises, all sides involved have contributed to part of the conflict, or there wouldn’t be a conflict in the first place.
I wish these politicians, pundits, media personalities, and others would come to Athens. I wish they could witness what I have witnessed. I wish they could see for themselves what happens when people set aside their differences and remember the most important commandment; “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I wish they could see the delight in a child’s face when a rescue worker takes time out of his schedule to hand out presents and candy canes. I wish they could see the eager faces of teenagers who take time to pick up metal and sharp objects so that land can be cleared to allow a farmer to let his cattle graze on his land without risking injury to them. I wish they could see how tirelessly so many of our citizens have contributed to help those afflicted by this tragedy without asking for anything in return.
I like to think that I am a person with a realistic outlook on life. I know that even if those in Washington DC and elsewhere could see what is going on here, it is unlikely to change anything. But a tiny part of me wants to brag to each and every one of them. A part of me wants to proudly display the actions of these everyday heroes and say “THIS is what America is all about! THIS is how humans should treat one another! Learn from this, and make this a part of who you are, and it will make you a better person and leader!”
And it is not just Athens either. Our neighbors in Polk County had also suffered severe damage from a tornado that hit the Ocoee area and killed two people. And, of course, the recent fires near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have resulted in fourteen deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses. And yet everywhere I look, I see the same thing, which is people helping other people in the face of adversity.
As we will soon have 2016 behind us, I can’t help but feel hopeful this Christmas, despite everything happening. I am proud to be considered a citizen of East Tennessee, because I have witnessed the perseverance of the survivors as well as the generosity and dedication of professional rescue workers and volunteers who have helped out in any way they could. I can only hope they know how much they are admired and appreciated by myself and others.
For my Christmas wish this year, I hope that more attention will be paid to Athens and the surrounding areas as we continue to rebound from these recent events. I hope that our actions as neighbors and citizens may be recognized by others, inspire them, and may be adopted by them to make this world a little bit better.
I wish everyone reading this a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Cox Law Office!