by Cindy Solomon for the Tennessee Conference, United Methodist Church
Late in the day on March 2, 2020, and into the early morning hours of March 3, deadly tornadoes cut through Middle Tennessee killing 25 people and injuring more 300 others. More than 70,000 people lost power and more than 3,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
In true volunteer fashion, response from a myriad of agencies and groups was swift…until COVID showed up. Suddenly media focus shifted and new pandemic-related priorities and precautions were established. Federal and local agencies, such as FEMA and the American Red Cross, suddenly faced the difficult decisions of shuttering their tornado relief efforts due to the hazards of the rapidly spreading pandemic and stay-at-home mandates set by city and county officials.
Large tornado clean-up projects were halted. Tornado-relief volunteers pivoted to help meet critical coronavirus-related needs in the community such as distributing food to hungry families whose children were no longer in school, supporting healthcare professionals in COVID assessment centers, and making and distributing much-needed face masks.
Yet in spite of the dual disasters and multiple diversions, one group emerged and has remained steadfast and operational in its mission to help Middle Tennessee tornado survivors rebuild their lives: the Tornado Recovery Connection (TRC). In partnership with the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church and trained by two United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) consultants, TRC disaster case managers help survivors navigate the home repair process, replace lost household goods, appliances and furniture, offer mortgage and rental assistance, organize debris removal, and provide resources for mental health, food, insurance mediation, and legal assistance.
UMCOR, the humanitarian relief and development arm of The United Methodist Church, provides relief, response, and long-term recovery grants to persons in need worldwide. Often UMCOR volunteers, staff, and consultants are the first to arrive on site to help…and they are the last to leave.
After the pandemic shut down the relief efforts of most agencies and groups, the Rev. Robert Craig, Tennessee Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, knew they had to find a way to virtually connect tornado survivors and TRC disaster case managers. UMCOR consultants Angela Overstreet and Christy Smith organized and trained 21 disaster case managers to respond to phone calls coming in from survivors concerning their tornado-related needs.
“The uniqueness of this experience has been that TRC disaster case managers have never all met in one room together due to COVID,” said TRC Director Eileen Lowery. “All trainings were held via Zoom calls and most disaster case management has been done virtually.”
After training, disaster case managers initially responded by gathering information from survivors and providing referrals to community organizations to help meet immediate needs. A helpline was created for survivors to call. In addition, TRC staff received survivors’ information from county agencies and the American Red Cross.
“This eventually grew to each county organizing multiple canvassing events to get information about TRC and the helpline phone number into the hands of the survivors,” said Lowery.
While TRC disaster case managers were trying to get the word out about themselves to tornado survivors, challenges and obstacles were mounting. At the same time the disaster case managers were contacting and assisting survivors, other less-scrupulous people were running insurance and home repair scams. Many survivors fell victim to their schemes. Knowing who to trust became difficult. TRC Disaster Case Manager Heather Marriott remembers scam contractors walking away with whole insurance checks.
Other disaster case managers met survivors who were having difficulty getting repairs made to their homes because, as renters, they were at the mercy of the owners to file insurance claims and schedule repairs. Some survivors were stuck negotiating between insurance companies and contractors. Other survivors were not only dealing with material loss but with personal loss as they grieved the death of loved ones due to the coronavirus.
Despite the darkness and hardship, TRC’s light shone brightly as disaster case managers persevered in their mission to provide resources for immediate relief as well as identify survivors with long-term needs. Since the group began in March 2020, disaster case managers have assisted or are currently assisting more than 650 individuals and their family members. They’ve also provided hundreds of referrals to connect survivors with area agencies and resources.
“Much of what I have heard from Robert Craig and Eileen Lowery over the past year is the ongoing story of redemption—that even in the darkest hour of destruction, we are saved through the redemptive act of relief and response,” said the Rev. Melinda Britt, Tennessee Conference Director of Connectional Ministries. “This is how many are choosing to live out their discipleship and commitment to follow Jesus—by providing relief and response that creates Christian community. This is Christ and our Church in action!”
In addition to providing tangible resources, disaster case managers also provide emotional support and a listening ear. TRC Disaster Case Manager the Rev. Marie King remembers making screening calls to clients who didn’t need tornado recovery. They just needed someone to talk to at the time.
“They were lost with all of the things that happened during that time—the tornado coming through and devastating their neighborhood,” said King. “It didn’t touch them but it touched their neighborhood. They saw destruction around them. Then COVID hit and it impacted their livelihood.
“I had many calls like that. The tornado itself did not touch survivors’ physical structure but it touched their spiritual and emotional wellbeing. We’ve been able to walk with people to help them recover from the other tornados in their lives. We help them make a way out of no way and get them to a better place than where we found them.”
As TRC disaster case managers continue reaching out to and assisting survivors, a larger issue looms amidst the rubble.
TRC Disaster Case Manager Steve Venick said the number-one issue for survivors who are renters has to do with probable rent increases once properties are repaired or rebuilt.
“For renters whose units had been affordable [before the tornado] but were destroyed and now rebuilt, the landlord would like to increase the rents,” said Venick. “One of TRC’s main goals in recovery is getting someone into safe, affordable, permanent housing. It’s been a real struggle when there’s simply no supply—especially in North and East Nashville where people have been living in the same neighborhood for decades and they’d like to stay there.
“But there’s no affordable housing in those areas anymore. Even getting them on the MDHA* waitlist is a wait of a year plus. It’s a citywide, countrywide, nationwide issue.”
While there is hope on the COVID front with vaccine distribution and the number of new cases and hospitalizations falling, there remains much left to do for Middle Tennessee’s tornado survivors. Church groups and individuals interested in helping can visit GIVE TO TN TORNADO 2020 and donate via credit card or PayPal or mail a check to TNUMC Disaster Response, 304 S. Perimeter Park Drive, Suite 1, Nashville, TN 37211. Established by the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church, 100 percent of the proceeds from this fund support the work of TRC’s disaster case managers. To support UMCOR’s disaster response and recovery efforts across the United States, visit GIVE THROUGH UMCOR.
Survivors still needing assistance can call the Tornado Recovery Connection at 615-270-9255 and leave a message. A disaster case manager will return the call within 24-48 hours. As long as there are unmet needs and the funding to support them, TRC disaster case managers will remain on the job providing help, hope, and support.
* Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency
Cindy Solomon is a content writer, project manager, and editor serving clients such as the Nashville Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church, the Golden Cross Foundation, ENCORE Ministry, and the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church.