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April 24, 2014

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2 Years Have Passed
Since Tornadoes; Memories Fresh

Sun photo by Ken Little

David Pabst, of 803 Ricker Road, points toward an area next to his property where several houses and mobile homes stood prior to April 27, 2011. The tornado that roared through the area destroyed the dwellings and resulted in two fatalities.

Originally published: 2013-04-26 10:57:39
Last modified: 2013-04-26 10:58:31



There are still days that David Pabst looks over to where his neighbors' houses once stood, and he thanks God for good fortune.

Part of the roof of Pabst's house at 803 Ricker Road was ripped off in the tornado that roared through his neighborhood late on the night of April 27, 2011, but the roof was repairable.

Three of Pabst's neighbors died that night in the tornado, and another passed away in the hospital days later.

"We were really fortunate," said Pabst, who reflected one sunny day this week on the April 27-28, 2011 tornadoes that struck two years ago this weekend.

Pabst and his wife Mary can now look back on the ferocious storm with the perspective of time.

"I'll be honest with you. The first year, year-and-a-half, it seemed like it was yesterday. It was just kind of hard to get your mind around," Pabst said. "You just had to resolve doing one thing at a time."


The tornadoes killed seven people in Greene County and injured 296 others. At least 48 houses and 38 mobile homes were destroyed, and major damage was inflicted on about 35 others.

Another 65 houses and mobile homes sustained less severe damage, according to the Greene County Emergency Agency.

More than 60 farm buildings were destroyed in the tornadoes, while numerous other farm buildings were also damaged.

Overall property damage in Greene County exceeded $12 million, an early damage figure that authorities have not updated since 2011.

Bill Brown, Greene County emergency management director, didn't sleep much for weeks after the tornadoes. He was too busy.

Like hundreds of other first responders, Brown rushed to the areas of devastation as soon as the storms passed through.

"First of all, I think all the first responders did an excellent job getting in. The survivors did an excellent job cutting trees to help first responders get in," Brown said.

Brown has assisted at other sites in Tennessee and states where severe weather struck.

But the April 2011 outbreak was different.

"My take on it was, I was at a lot of disasters throughout the U.S. I thought I was mentally prepared for something that happens in your hometown, but I wasn't," Brown said. "I still think a lot about it today."


The tornado outbreak that struck the U.S. two years ago was the largest ever recorded.

On April 27-28, 2011, there were 178 confirmed tornadoes in 10 states, resulting in 351 deaths, including 33 in Tennessee.

Meteorologists said that atmospheric conditions were ideal on April 27 to produce numerous thunderstorms with strong updrafts, creating "super cells" and an ideal setup for the devastating storms that followed.

The sheer number of tornadoes generated during the outbreak, including more than 40 in East Tennessee, was what made it so unique.

"It was a fascinating event, and unfortunately a deadly event as well," National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist George Mathews said during a 2011 presentation on the outbreak at Carson-Newman College.

"It's the big event of our generation. It's the big event of recorded history," said Morristown-based NWS meteorologist David Gaffin.

By "recorded history," Gaffin referred to the years after 1950, when the science of tornado prediction and analysis became more precise.

"It's a very big event and a very extraordinary event, but hopefully we will not see it again for a long time," he said.


Morristown-based NWS science officer David Hotz called the storm "a classic generational outbreak of tornadoes."

In Greene County, communities hit particularly hard included Camp Creek, Horse Creek, Ducktown, the Houston Valley area and Bulls Gap.

Five people lost their lives the night of April 27 along the track of the EF-3 Camp Creek tornado, and another man who suffered injuries died shortly afterward.

The top wind speed of the Camp Creek tornado was estimated by the NWS at 150 mph. It was 16 miles in length and 1,500 yards wide.

The Camp Creek tornado touched down at 10:56 p.m. on April 27.


The tornado that hit the Horse Creek community was categorized by the NWS as an EF-4, with top wind speeds of 160 mph. It had a 14-mile track, was 1,000 yards wide, and accounted for another fatality.

"This was a storm of long duration," Hotz said.

The Horse Creek EF-4 tornado touched down at 12:42 a.m. on April 28, according to the NWS.

It caused numerous injuries, as was the case in Camp Creek. The tornado continued into the South Central community of Washington County before dissipating, killing at least one person there.

At least 41 Horse Creek families lost their homes and most of their possessions to the tornado.

The Ducktown tornado, in northeastern Greene County, was the first to touch down, at 9:26 p.m. on April 27, near Old Snapps Ferry Road. It clipped Greene County in the Liberty Hill area, also known as Ducktown.

Maximum winds were estimated by the NWS at 120 mph. The tornado had a length of 10 miles and a width of 150 yards.

The tornado moved into Washington County before winding down.


An EF-0 tornado in the Houston Valley community had maximum wind speeds of 75 mph. The tornado's track was two miles long and 300 yards wide.

It touched down in the 1000 block of Houston Valley Road and crossed Asheville Highway (State Route 70), before losing strength as it moved eastward.

The short-lived Houston Valley EF-0 tornado was part of the storm cell that re-emerged minutes later as the deadly EF-3 tornado that moved through Camp Creek.

The final tornado to be identified by the NWS was an EF-0 tornado which passed just north of Exit 23 of Interstate 81 in the Bulls Gap area, near Volunteer Speedway.

That tornado covered a half-mile path of about 70 yards wide and reached a maximum wind speed of 70 mph.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale EF-3 and EF-4 tornadoes that hit Greene County are categorized as "severe" or "devastating" on the EF Scale, which ranges from EF-0 (gale) in severity to EF-5 (incredible).


The tornado that hit Camp Creek certainly seemed devastating to David Pabst.

Like many other Greene County residents, he was monitoring the volatile weather situation the night of April 27.

Pabst recalls the tornado hitting about 11:30 p.m.

"My wife had gone up to bed," he said. "I was talking to my son on the telephone."

Pabst said that at the time, his son Michael was a student at the University of Tennessee. Pabst was warning his son about the dangerous storms in the area when he felt a more immediate sign of trouble.

"The house started shaking, and I told him, 'I got to get your mom,' and by the time I did that it was over. It was quick," Pabst said.

The house, part of which dates to 1897, was damaged, but an old barn about 100 feet away on the property disintegrated. A line of trees in the yard were snapped off at the base.

"It took the barn out completely. It must have gone over the barn," Pabst said. "The whole yard was just filled with stuff from all over the neighborhood. There were pieces and parts of mobile homes and everything, including our barn. It was a mess."


Pabst motioned to an empty field nearby. Two years ago, it contained four dwellings, including several mobile homes.

"It just completely destroyed them," he said.

A woman who lived in one of the mobile homes was killed. Another neighbor suffered injuries and was taken to the hospital, where he died soon afterward.

On the other side of the house, toward Rambo Road, two other neighbors died in their mobile home, Pabst said.

It was hard to gauge the extent of the damage caused by the Camp Creek tornado until first light. Debris was everywhere, making it difficult to walk to neighboring properties.

"We could not even get out of the front yard to get over there," Pabst said. "It damaged all the siding all the way around the house. It blew out 13 or 14 windows, and we just had to cover things up."


The morning after the storm, help started arriving, Pabst said.

"Almost instantly, people from all over the community and people from all over the state -- they were there immediately, and they never did leave until everything was under control. It was a blessing," Pabst said.

The immediate concern of first responders in Greene County was tending to injured survivors. Then other short-term relief activities were organized.

Free Will Baptist Family Ministries in Camp Creek became a nerve center for the relief effort. A donation center was established, and the county emergency management incident command center was located there.

"Everybody rallied together," said Dr. James Kilgore, who at the time was president and CEO of Free Will Baptist Family Ministries.

Kilgore remains a member of the board of directors of AIDNET of Greene County, Inc., which held its quarterly meeting this week. The AIDNET organization remains intact to quickly respond to any future disasters.

AIDNET -- an acronym for Assistance In Disaster North East Tennessee -- was formed in 2001 after flooding in Greene County and reorganized after the tornadoes struck. The formal name of the non-profit organization was later changed to AIDNET of Greene County, Inc.

AIDNET played a vital role in coordinating recovery efforts in storm-ravaged local communities.

"We saw the good come out" in people despite losses suffered by so many, Kilgore said.

"At our little mini-warehouse, the majority did not take anything they did not need," he said. "I saw everybody pull together and everybody take care of each other."

Two years after the tornadoes, "The results are really amazing," Kilgore said.


Brown's immediate concern was for the well-being of the tornado survivors.

"My main goal after everyone's personal safety was taken care of was looking at long-term needs, getting everyone possible back to normal as we could get them," he said.

Early on April 28, 2011, county Mayor Alan Broyles signed a state of emergency declaration in the county.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) officials were in Greene County later that same day.

A presidential disaster declaration was issued soon afterward, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) got involved in the relief effort, setting up shop in the gymnasium of Camp Creek Elementary School.

FEMA aid to Greene County residents exceeded $1.6 million. There were more than 600 registrations for FEMA and Small Business Administration assistance in Greene County.

"There was a lot of unmet needs when FEMA moved out, and that's where AIDNET came in and really helped," Brown said.

By mid-June 2011, AIDNET of Greene County had reorganized. Fundraising began, and volunteers began helping to coordinate relief efforts.


Jim Ramey, whose home in the Fall Branch area of Sullivan County was damaged in the tornadoes, arrived with a mobile kitchen that was set up at First Baptist Church in Greeneville.

Ramey remains active in the Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief Ministry, but his role in Greene County's recovery effort became pivotal when he was chosen as AIDNET's president.

"It seems like we had a lot of spiritual guidance as we tried to start, and it all came together," Ramey said. "The people of Greene County were really receptive to what we were doing. They were just awesome."

Wayne Bettis is a member of the Camp Creek Ruritan and a former national president of the organization, which also provided vital assistance to tornado survivors. He remains on the AIDNET board of directors.

As a Camp Creek resident, Ramey saw first-hand the devastation wrought by the tornadoes, and the effectiveness of the long-term response by AIDNET and other faith-based and private organizations.

Members of many local church congregations gave substantial assistance to the relief effort.

One example is the congregation of the Horse Creek Church of God, which, in addition to efforts by its own members, hosted a large group of volunteers from Mountain View Church in Asheboro, N.C. The volunteers built a home for a tornado survivor on Fishpond Road.

There are numerous similar stories reflecting the contributions of the faith-based community, private businesses and individuals with the means to help.

"I see so much good that's come out of this, I forget the bad," Bettis said.

"Time and time again the miracles that I saw, it was an incredible ride. Our community is coming back, and now it's a thing of the past."


Brown said the tornado outbreak of 2011 made people more aware of disaster preparations.

"I think it's made more people safety-conscious. I know of a few that have actually built storm shelters," he said.

"It all boils down to the fact people need to heed these warnings and take immediate action when the warnings come out."

Brown said Greene County residents are more mindful of safety steps like owning a NOAA weather radio, having a family plan in place, keeping water and non-perishable food items on hand, and a "go pack" ready to use on short notice.

The tornado outbreak also provided insights about the coordination of volunteer workers, and the importance of details like setting up the emergency management incident command center near the FEMA location to provide advice about filling out paperwork.

"I think that is a great help to the survivors," Brown said.

Brown said that on some days, it doesn't feel like the tornado outbreak happened two years ago.

"It does and it doesn't," he said. "Sometimes, according to what mood you're in, it seems like it was yesterday."


The roof on Pabst's house was replaced by early August 2011. The property was eventually cleaned up. Work on the house continues to this day.

Pabst and his family have lived on Ricker Road since 1997. Like many who still make their homes in communities such as Camp Creek and Horse Creek, Pabst will never forget the tornado outbreak.

"I've been all over the world and done a lot of things and been in a war. But I've never seen anything like that," he said.

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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