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Blown Away

COM photojournalism student preserves tornado’s aftermath

| From BU Today | By SCOTT EISEN (COM’13)
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In the slideshow above, view photos and listen to audio documenting damage left in the wake of tornadoes that hit Ringgold, Ga., and Cleveland, Tenn. Photos by Scott Eisen (COM’13). Audio recording by Ryan McBride

Around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, a few friends and I, all aspiring photojournalists, had just finished watching The Bang Bang Club, a movie about four combat photographers. My friend Ryan McBride had an idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go down South to cover the tornado devastation?”

Normally, an idea like this would be just an idea. We’re college kids, and we can’t afford to just book a flight and hotel and go anywhere we want to go. But in this case we thought seriously about it, then went to work trying to figure out the worst hit areas in the South. President Obama had visited Birmingham, Ala., so we knew there would already be plenty of coverage down there. We wanted to go somewhere off the map.

The newspapers reported that an EF4 tornado, with winds of 175 mph, had destroyed most of a small North Georgia town called Ringgold. At least 12 people had been killed. It was a tempting destination. We decided to sleep on the idea and make a decision in the morning.

It was easy. I called Ryan as soon as I woke up. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s book this.” The first hotel I called to arrange lodging was the Super 8 in Ringgold. The phone just kept ringing.

Ryan and I landed in Atlanta at 10:30 Saturday night. We got our rental car and headed toward Ringgold, a two-hour drive. Two exits before the one we were supposed to take we noticed that there were no electric lights on the billboards. Then we saw trees lying on their sides, and when we finally reached our exit, we drove past the heavily damaged Super 8. As we pulled into the parking lot of a hotel that was undamaged, we saw that there were no parking spaces. The hotel had become a safe haven for those who had lost their homes.

The next morning, we ventured down a street that according to my research had been hit. We found only some minor wind damage, so we headed towards the center of town. As we went down Lafayette Street, Ryan and I were in a state of shock. Everything. Was. Gone. Not a single building was standing, and many appeared literally to have blown away. There were houses without walls, and there were foundations without houses. We stopped and chatted with a sheriff, who told us it was OK to take pictures

The strange thing was that the air smelled so fresh. Then we realized that the uprooted trees were giving off beautiful scents. We ran into a local woman who told us that her restaurant was the only one in town left standing. She said that more than 40 people were in the McDonald’s we had just photographed when the tornado hit.

The whole place felt like a war zone. On one residential road, we saw several flipped and destroyed cars. While photographing this, we heard the sound of singing. Following our ears, we found the entire congregation of a destroyed Baptist church gathered outside, still worshipping. Everyone we talked to insisted that they “would be okay.” They would rebuild, they said. Life would go on.

After lunch, we returned to the desolate area that had once been the center of town, but police wouldn’t let us pass. Our press credentials from back home failed to impress them. Eventually, local news reporters suggested that we move on, up to the town of Cleveland, Tenn., where another EF4 tornado had ripped through a neighborhood.

Ryan and I hopped back in the car and drove 35 minutes to Cleveland, where we met a local journalist, who told us how to get to the destroyed neighborhood. After a short conversation with a few police officers, we were in. “If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, don’t take it!” we were told.

It was the first time we got a glimpse of people going through their belongings and consoling each other. We learned that nine people had died in this neighborhood alone. No one was hostile towards us, and we were very careful not to bother anyone. A few locals were OK talking to us about what had happened.

It was getting dark, and we decided to drive back to Ringgold. I edited my photos at our hotel, and we drove back to Atlanta because I had an early flight out. I knew I had to get up early, but I couldn’t sleep; the images of the day kept coming back to me in the night.

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