This time last year, Ringgold, Georgia was surprised by a devastating storm system that killed 15 people statewide. Among those were two Ringgold High School students. The tornado that struck Ringgold was especially destructive to area schools, particularly the high school and eighth grade wing of the middle school. Second grade teacher Courtney Couey remembers that day and the transition the community has been through since.
What was the day of the storm like?
There was a threat of severe weather all day long. I would keep the radar map pulled up on my computer (without the kids seeing), and watched severe storms come through Alabama where I was born. I started to get a little concerned, but really I thought, "What are the chances?" Ringgold is so small! A town of roughly around 3,000 people within the city. There's no way this would really happen.
I remember that we dismissed school at 1:00 that day due to the severe weather moving into the area.
Where were you during the tornado?
After dismissing school, I arrived home at 4:00. I went straight home and turned on the local news. I watched it until 10:00 that night and felt helpless. I live outside of the city limits so never lost power other than a few blinks every now and then. Cell phone signal was intermittent so I really didn't have much contact with close friends until the next day. When I finally heard from someone, I was in disbelief and really held onto the saying, "out of sight, out of mind." If I hadn't seen it, it really didn't happen. With Ringgold being right off I-75, there were lots of people driving by to survey the damage out of curiosity. You were not allowed to drive through Ringgold without proof of a Ringgold address, then issued a pink "resident" sign to display in your windshield.
What did you think when you saw the damage?
It was 1 week later that I drove through for the first time. School was cancelled the entire next week. All I could do was cry at the amount damage to our tiny town.
How did the Ringgold community react?
People started to swarm in from everywhere for assistance. Balfour set up their disaster relief headquarters on top of the [high school] tennis court. Churches got groups together to clean up debris. The Methodist Church was used to store donated items for people who needed food, clothes, baby items, pet food, etc. Neighbors helped other neighbors as soon as the sun came up the next day. LFO High, a county school, was used as a triage unit and shelter for those who were injured or needed a place to sleep.
Elementary schools from all around donated books to classrooms.
There was money donated for athletics because all of the athletic facilities were destroyed. Football bleachers, equipment rooms, wrestling facility, cheerleading facility, tennis court, baseball and softball fields, and the main and auxiliary gym were all destroyed. Heritage High, another county school, offered their football field for the team to practice on as well as Ringgold's band. Finley Stadium in Chattanooga was the "home field" for all of Ringgold's football games this past year. Ringgold High students had to finish up the school year at Heritage. Each group of students went 1/2 day to complete requirements for graduation and state tests were waived. RHS teachers were allowed to salvage what personal items they could and move to HHS for the remainder of the year.
What is different now?
All of the restaurants have been rebuilt and more modernized. The high school has been redone. The 8th grade wing [at the middle school] is under construction while the 8th grade kids attend classes at RHS for the time being. Many of the houses have been rebuilt. The athletic facilities are almost all complete. There are some reminders such as houses still with tarps on roofs and the main thing that reminds me of that awful storm is the amount of trees that are no longer there. The treeline is vastly different and will take years and years to replace.
What do you want the greater community of Georgia to know?
It goes without saying that Ringgold, who was already a close-knit community, grew even closer as a result of this. All are eternally grateful for those who offered what they could to complete strangers.
Though it was devastating to such a tiny community, the signs that now hang in windows of business downtown read: "We are Ringgold."
The strength and resilience demonstrated by this town is incredible. The school system and greater community were very resourceful in acting to ensure that students could proceed with their educations quickly after the destruction and have clearly maintained that priority with creative use of space while areas are being rebuilt.
Sincere thanks to Ms. Couey for her candor in this interview.