Thousands still seeking help in TN

Nearly 4,000 uninsured or underinsured homeowners have filed for assistance in TN following last month’s deadly tornadoes.

BY BOND BRUNGARD | Lafayette, Tn. | March 12, 2008

"As far as you see across hills, you could see damage," said Hal Shope of Lutheran Disaster Response describing damage from the February tornadoes in TN.
Credit: Cathy Farmer, Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church

Hal Shope, a regional coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), said he was stunned by the devastation caused by February tornadoes in northeastern Tennessee. “As far as you see across the hills, you could see damage.”

The devastation, Shope said, was massive and random, with many homes damaged– while some went untouched. “Those people (whose homes and/or lives were not impacted) have survivor’s guilt that is horrific.”

LDR is just one of many faith-based organizations that are responding to the devastation left behind following the February tornadoes.

On Feb 5-6, violent storms raced across Arkansas and Tennessee, touching down around Memphis and heading eastward. Nashville was spared, but storms landed northeast in Macon County and devastated communities like Lafayette. There were 32 fatalities statewide, and 13 in Macon County. As many as 4,000 homes were damaged in the Tennessee tornados, and 587 were destroyed.

Shope came to the area to help organize an early relief effort to ensure there was enough food and shelter. “Early on, we made sure people were comfortable and they had food,” he said.

Shope said many residents sought out churches in the community and that an organized cleanup included about a couple hundred volunteers helping them clear out lots for the replacement trailers. Now the long term recovery program includes simple preparation for similar storms.

“You have to just make sure you are prepared,” said Shope.

Sherry Buresh also served in Macon County, trying help get people back in their homes.

Buresh, the assistant director of the Christian Appalachian Project, a faith-based organization that helps residents in this mountainous region, made the three and a hour drive with 35 volunteers in 15 vehicles to Lafayette. And once they arrived there, another 25 volunteers from states such as Oregon, Mississippi, Washington, Illinois and Virginia helped clean up damage in north-central Tennessee.

In Macon County, 68 percent of the homes were uninsured, compared to 55 percent uninsured statewide. Next door in Sumner County, there were eight fatalities and 13 injuries and 77 percent of the damaged homes were uninsured.

Buresh and her volunteers, whom were hosted by the Church of Christ in Lafayette and the Jubilee Worship Center in Sumner County, helped families with many generations, which lost homes and family members.

About 25 miles from Lafayette, Buresh and her teams helped a family, spanning three generations, that lost its elderly patriarch after he was blown from his home. The man’s body was found the next day. They also helped farmers clear their fields of debris, so they could start planting for the spring.

The Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church is providing relief grants to churches in the damaged areas and has sent volunteers to help distribute food and early relief supplies. Clergy and lay personnel were also sent to help with stress and trauma management. And in Williamson, Hickman, Sumner and Macon counties, the conference is helping to provide long-term treatment for these issues.

“We are sponsoring case management training,” said Jason Brock, the disaster coordinator for the Tennessee conference.

United Methodist volunteers set up a notification and identification center at the Lafayette United Methodist Church, and at the Bethpage United Methodist Church, food and early relief supplies were distributed.

Brock said the conference expects to be involved for the next 18-24 months in helping these communities rebound from the disaster.

Macon County has about 21,000 residents near the Kentucky border, and Jeremy Heidt, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said many of the residents lived in trailer homes, which were hard to insure.

TEMA (Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) immediately sent crews to Macon County to assess the damage. The initial cleanup cleared 36,000 yards of debris, taken with 3,400 truckloads, from the county roadways.

“It was a tremendous storm,” he said. “They had so much damage and so little resources.”

FEMA has offered 61-foot trailers to residents. The trailers are currently undergoing formaldehyde testing in Arkansas and Oregon before being delivered to Macon County. Keith Scruggs, the emergency management director in Macon County, said 500 residents in the country were left homeless – but all found homes with friends and relatives after the storms.

Scruggs said rebuilding is already underway for insured residents. He said uninsured residents could be living in FEMA trailers for about 18 months or until arrangements and financing can be finalized for them to rebuild.

“In the long-term, our goal is that everyone has a long term residence at least 18 months from now,” he said.

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