Warren County native Bliss Zechman is among the survivors of an EF-3 tornado that ripped through Chattanooga late Sunday night, ravaging her home with tree damage and sheer velocity.
The storm left at least nine dead in the Chattanooga area and packed winds estimated at 145 mph, according to the National Weather Service. More than 30 were killed as the storm barreled through the South from Louisiana to the Appalachian Mountains.
Zechman is a reporter for Channel 9 in Chattanooga and was watching the weather report on that station when she learned there was a tornado warning issued for her immediate area. She estimates the time around 11:30 p.m.
“I woke up my roommate because she was already in bed and we huddled together in the hall with our four dogs because we don’t have a true interior room in our house,” said Zechman. “I heard the front door start to rattle and all of a sudden it knocked the door to the back of the house. It was like a loud boom and then a whoosh and then insulation and debris started to blow everywhere. The dogs were panicking and trying to run away. We were holding onto their leashes and I grabbed one of them by the leg. My roommate was praying out loud and I was really scared. She told me afterwards that’s the most scared she’s ever been in her life. I got to thinking about it and that’s the most scared I’ve ever been too.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Cavallucci told the Chattanooga Times Free Press one tornado estimated at nine miles long and 1,500 yards wide ripped through Hamilton and Bradley counties after traveling from at least Louisiana.
Zechman and her roommate, Mariah Rock, also a Channel 9 employee, avoided serious injury, although it appears their home and possibly both their cars are a complete loss. Zechman said she feels achy all over, sort of like being in a car wreck, and could feel the power of the tornado trying to suck her out of the house.
“The whole area lost power so it was completely dark and it was hard to see anything,” said Zechman. “We tried to get out the front door but there were so many downed trees there was no way we could even crawl out. So we tried the back and were able to get out that way. When we got outside, I had no idea it would be that bad. We have a big yard with probably around 20 trees and only three of them were left standing.”
Their house was destroyed but the storm was by no means over. The two ladies and their four dogs were able to take shelter at a neighbor’s home which received almost no damage.
Unable to get through to 911, Zechman called her news station to check on the status of the storm. She was told it was still very much a threat and to get indoors immediately.
“We didn’t know if we’d be hit again so we stayed huddled in their bathroom till around 5 a.m.,” said Zechman. “It was kind of like we had post-traumatic stress syndrome. Every time the rain or wind would pick up, we’d get scared again. We had a very heightened awareness.”
Zechman returned to McMinnville to stay Monday night and determine how to begin picking up the pieces. She and her roommate no longer have a home, or cars, and just a few belongings to their name.
“My car now has a sun roof I wasn’t expecting,” said Zechman, who managed some humor amid the trying situation. “With the extent of damage our house sustained, we’re thankful to be alive. We’re also so thankful for the outpouring of support from all the people who were so eager to help us.”
Zechman says the storm left her in an unusual situation.
“As a reporter, I’m used to telling other people’s story,” said Zechman. “I’m not used to the story being about me.”
Zechman was one of the valedictorians in the WCHS graduating class of 2013.