The tornado that ripped through Chattanooga on Easter Sunday night came with no warning.
“It happened at midnight,” said Marina Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge’s Chattanooga office. “The majority of people were asleep.”
She and her husband rushed to a downstairs bathroom to take refuge, listening to howling winds and crashing trees outside her home.
“It was a terrifying experience, not knowing what to expect,” she said. “If you have never experienced that or never seen anything like that, you really don’t understand the power of the devastation – the power of what it can possibly do. You can’t really grasp it until you see it. … I thought, if I survive in this bathroom, we will be the proud owners of one blanket and one pillow. That’s all I had in my hands.”
Soon after daylight broke and power returned to her home, Marina and her husband ventured outside. The storm had damaged their home’s roof and uprooted mature trees, leaving others dangling precariously overhead, caught in the tangle of other trees’ limbs.
“We were lucky,” Marina said. “It’s devastating in Chattanooga.”
The EF-3 tornado killed two people, injured more than a dozen others, reduced entire homes to rubble and damaged 150 structures across two counties.
It also rubbed salt in the wounds of a community already facing a global pandemic.
“It just added to the emotional and psychological distress people are feeling,” Marina said. “After everything we’ve experienced … what a year.”
In the weeks leading up to the tornado, Bridge staff had been pressed to find creative ways to continue offering critical services to its refugee clients, many of whom had arrived in February and March.
“Once every few weeks, we’ve assigned a church or group of volunteers to a family, and they have gathered items that would be useful or needed by the family,” said Bridge Volunteer and Community Outreach Manager Hannah Mask. “The first one we did for some families who hadn’t received their food stamps yet, so we provided a lot of groceries and the basic items to stock up for two weeks’ worth of food, diapers, wipes and things like that. We’re in the middle of second round right now, and we will do one more with a focus on kid’s activities for the summer.”
But much like Bridge staff and volunteers had mobilized to help clients through the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges, Marina said they also rallied to help their neighbors, refugee or not, affected by the tornado.
“Everybody was helping each other as much as possible,” she said. “There are so many small communities within communities. At every level, people helped each other.”
Marina took to the phones, checking on her own family, neighbors and fellow staff at Bridge before she and other case managers began the task of calling their clients.
“We called everybody,” she said. “By 10 o’clock in the morning on Monday, we knew everyone was alive and okay.”
Marina, a Ukrainian immigrant who has worked with Bridge for more than 20 years, and many other Ukrainian immigrants and refugees live in the East Brainerd area, one of several communities in Hamilton County to suffer the brunt of the tornado’s wrath.
“To see it all in rubble just breaks my heart,” Marina said. “I passed rubble in one place that used to be a house and there was a couple my age on plastic lawn chairs sitting in front of it. I cried. I still get emotional.”
Marina also connected clients in need of meals and other emergency services with area nonprofits serving those affected by the storms, while Mask tasked Bridge volunteers to help with more immediate client needs such as cleaning up debris.
One client, also from Ukraine, was home with her two daughters when the storm hit. While the home escaped damage, trees on their wooded property had fallen, crisscrossing the entire length of their long driveway, blocking their ability to leave.
“It took three days to cut them out,” Marina said.
At the client’s request, Mask arranged for a volunteer to bring bottled water and snacks to pass out to the many volunteers who were working to chainsaw through the trees blocking the drive.
“There were at least two other households that didn’t have power up to a week and we had volunteers that brought them non-refrigerated food items and necessities during that time without power,” Mask said.
A Sudanese father of five who is a Bridge client lost his vehicle when a tree fell on it, Marina said, while the tornado displaced the roof of another Ukrainian immigrant family’s home, tossing it onto not one, not two, but all eight of the family’s vehicles parked outside.
Marina and her husband spent about a week clearing debris from their own yard, and hired others to help with the more difficult parts of the cleanup.
“This Ukrainian refugee told me her perspective in life has changed as to what’s important and what is not,” Marina said.
After her family’s driveway had been cleared, they have shown their gratitude by helping their neighbors clean debris from their yards and homes.
“Everything bad that happens in our lives also becomes a good lesson for your heart and soul,” Marina said. “To me, it’s what refugee strength is – to live through terrible things and pick themselves up and find purpose in life to look forward.”