Neighbors helping neighbors. That's what the Tennessee tornado recovery is all about.
Bill Carr, disaster recovery coordinator for the Memphis United Methodist Conference Disaster Recovery team, said the recovery efforts in Memphis and across the state are in the "clean up and education stage" right now. He said volunteers have been coming from as far away as Kansas and Michigan to help those affected by the storms to get on their feet again.
"There are a lot of country folk out here who are used to doing things on their own, taking care of themselves," Carr explained. "We've got to educate them that there are people here who can help them."
While some volunteers are spending their days pulling debris from yards, cutting up fallen trees and clearing paths for those who will come after them to rebuild, there are others who are going through affected neighborhoods with information about filling out the appropriate insurance or FEMA forms. Carr said they want to make sure that everyone understands what assistance is available to them when they decide they want to take advantage of it.
The executives of Tennessee VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) met on Valentines Day to discuss long term strategies.
As part of that team effort, the Salvation Army is working to help organize the warehousing of supplies that are being donated in the Memphis area. Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are organizing a large warehouse in Nashville for the same purpose. The Catepillar Company is donating the use of forklifts for those warehouses. American Red Cross is using its volunteers to find housing for those who have long term housing needs in the wake of the 33 tornadoes that ripped across the state. Methodist Hospital, based in Memphis, is donating bedding, towels and wash cloths for those who lost those basic household items in the storms.
"Everyone is joining hands to help out our neighbors," Carr said.
Brenda Kerns of the UMC Disaster Recovery team said city and county governments throughout the counties affected by the storms are sending out teams to collect the debris as it is being brought to the street. The municipalities have kept police and fire officials at the ready, she said, to help out as needed. Now it is the job of the volunteers to do whatever they need to do to get ready for the rebuilding phase.
"It's too soon to assess when all the rebuilding can begin," Kerns said. "We're just going through and getting things ready."
The volunteer community is also struggling with a tragedy within their own ranks as they work to help others. Four days into their work, Rev. Michael Welch of Lafayette United Methodist Church in Lafayette, his wife Julie and their two children were killed when a semi carrying relief supplies slammed into their van as they were stopped in heavy traffic on Highway 52.
Ruth Stafford, who answers the phone at the church where several families are staying until their homes are once again inhabitable, said the church is in "complete shock."
"He was the one we knew we could always turn to in times like these," she said.
Carr said that people in his state are strong and independent. He knows everyone draws strength from God and from each other. Even those who think they don't need any help are softened when they see those who have come from long distances and around the state to lend a hand.
One cattle farmer whose fences were ripped from the ground was selling off the cattle he could recover for pennies on the dollar because the frozen ground was too hard for him to be able to replace the fence. Agricultural students went to his property, worked in groups to replace the fence posts and brought in the cattle that had wandered away as best he could.
"He could see we were God's hands here for him," Carr said.
While some lost everything in the storm, early assessments show that many of those who suffered losses from the storm in the western part of the state are insured. Kerns said the volunteers are making sure that each person they help understands the steps they must take to file their insurance claims or a FEMA claim if they don't have their own insurance.
"Everyone has to get those things in order before they can get to the repair phase," she said.
"Everybody is working together," Carr said. "Everything is coming together," he said. "It's neighbor helping neighbor, even if your neighbor came from 5,000 miles away."
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