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Tennessee vows to rebuild

Rebuilding the tornado-wracked city of Jackson, Tenn., is no small task, but several different organizations are working together to do just that.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | JACKSON, Tenn. | October 17, 2003

"Some people are still living in their homes that are wrecked."

—Christy Smith

Rebuilding the tornado-wracked city of Jackson, Tenn., is no small task, but several different organizations are working together to do just that.

Disaster Recovery Services (DRS), an interfaith group overseeing the recovery, is coordinating the work of several organizations to clean up the damage left by the May 4 tornadoes, said Christy Smith, executive director of DRS. And that work is being facilitated in no small part by the more than $500,000 raised by a summer concert called Storm Aid, which brought such country music stars as Darryl Worley, Vince Gill and Amy Grant to Jackson.

To date, Smith has recorded 444 cases of Jackson families in need of help, and 115 of those cases were closed over the summer.

But the closed cases represent the ones that were the easiest to deal with. Now come the more difficult projects, which will include the demolition and rebuilding of more than 30 homes. Another 70 to 80 homes will require major renovation, and another 30 or so will require at least minor repairs, she said.

"Some people are still living in their homes that are wrecked," Smith said. "One women is still living in her room that doesn't have water or electricity, and we can't convince her to leave."

That option will not be available to her much longer, however; Smith said the woman's home is soon to be demolished, and a new home is slated to be built by Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat is one of the groups scheduled to build new homes. This marks an unusual step for Habitat, Smith said, noting that the group normally does not rebuild homes that were destroyed by natural disasters and had to obtain special permission to handle the DRS projects.

In addition to Habitat for Humanity, both the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) are working together to build new homes.

The CRWRC group has people coming in from all over the U.S. and Canada, including California, Michigan and Ontario, according to Fred Visser, CRWRC coordinator.

A rotating group of about two dozen volunteers will work for the next five or six months maybe longer in Jackson. Each crew will work for about three weeks before trading off with a new team.

Volunteers of both MDS and CRWRC will share the second floor of the Dream Center of Jackson, a former hospital transformed into a homeless shelter by the Family Worship Center of Jackson.

The Affordable Housing Community Development Corp., a Jackson-based philanthropic nonprofit, will also build new homes, according to Smith.

"We're all going to be working hand-in-glove, especially on the rebuilds," Visser said.

Two other Tennessee towns Lexington and Dyersburg were also struck by tornadoes, but long-term needs do not appear to be comparable to those in Jackson, Smith said.

But that doesn't mean these two towns will not need a lot more help. Smith said there are dozens of homes that incurred serious damage in those areas. But not many people from these towns have sought assistance, and Smith is not sure whether that is because the former residents left the area, or whether the homes are owned by absentee landlords.

Regardless of how many people come forward for help in the outlying areas, Smith knows that more Jackson residents will come to DRS. While the numbers have dropped from the stream of about 50 per week that DRS saw over the summer, there are still about 10 people dropping in every week.

These people need more than just home repair, she said. There are many requests for furniture and appliances, a need that DRS is working to supply, partly with donated items, and partly with brand new items bought with donated funds.

Then there are the people who need help with their rent checks. This is perhaps the hardest problem Smith said she has had to deal with, mainly because the tornado ripped up most of the low-rent housing in town, and displaced people who stayed in the city have been forced to pay much higher rents than they were used to.

"Because all the cheap housing blew away, a lot of our clients are in housing that they cannot afford," she said. "Just giving them one month's rent is not going to solve the problem."

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