After tornado, TN looks back

When it comes to tornado recovery in Jackson, Tenn., Robert White mentions one thing first: "It has been an ecumenical effort."

BY SUSAN KIM | JACKSON, Tenn. | May 4, 2004

"More than 22 churches were damaged and some of those were destroyed."

—Robert White

When it comes to tornado recovery in Jackson, Tenn., Robert White - even with years of personal disaster response experience - mentions one thing first: "It has been an ecumenical effort."

Tornadoes struck Jackson exactly one year ago today, killing 11 people and cutting a wide swath of destruction. Madison County received a federal disaster declaration - its eighth in the past 10 years. More than 6,400 people registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking aid to repair tornado damage.

White - a board member of Disaster Recovery Services (DRS) in Jackson, as well as a retired Presbytery Executive for the Northeast Synod of the Presbyterian Church - speaks fondly of the groups with which he's worked: "The United Methodists provided a local disaster recovery coordinator and an office, and Mennonite Disaster Service and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee repaired so many homes. I really admire all of them. Then there's a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, too."

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has also offered financial support and shared expertise.

Looking back, White noticed what has helped speed recovery along is the fact that DRS - the umbrella group comprising faith-based, civic and government groups helping people recover from tornado damage - had a pre-existing structure.

"They had a series of tornadoes that struck Bemis, Tennessee, in 1999, and they were just coming to the conclusion of that when the May 4, 2003, tornado came," he said. "The May 4 and 5, 2003, tornado was five times as dangerous and impacted 10 times as many people - but at least people were organized."

DRS has handled more than 550 cases, providing services ranging from counseling to completely rebuilding homes.

"There have been 35 rebuilds, 75 major home repairs, 40 minor home repairs, more than 100 appliance and furniture replacements, and 50 cases of rental utility assistance," said White.

DRS board members still meet monthly.

Some businesses in downtown Jackson are still not completely restored, said White. "The whole landscape of downtown has changed."

The landscape of the faith community has changed as well since many churches sustained heavy damage. "More than 22 churches were damaged and some of those were destroyed," said White.

The tornado leveled houses and government buildings, too - even the regional post office was obliterated, said White. "Four months ago we got our last damaged piece of mail."

Yet even in the midst of remembering the devastation, White still sees the blessings. "We've been very fortunate. Everyone from local churches to civic groups has provided work crews."

White and others have predicted Jackson's tornado recovery will extend into 2008, especially when counseling needs are taken into consideration.

This week, Jackson is having a citywide celebration to commemorate the city's losses but also to celebrate the accomplishments in recovery. Throughout the year, volunteer crews have been planting trees in commemoration of tornado victims.

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