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Massive TN cleanup takes center stage

The work is far from over for those affected by the floods in the Volunteer State.


More than 61,000 people in 45 different counties have filed for aid in the wake of massive flooding that hit Tennessee last month. But as more claims are filed and the region shifts to long-term response some survivors worry that other disasters like the Gulf Coast oil spill will negatively impact their ability to rebuild lives in Tennessee. "It’s becoming out of sight, out of mind," said the Rev. Jay Voorhees of Antioch (TN) United Methodist Church.

As of June 6, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has tallied more than $133 million in disaster grants and low-interest loans for survivors.

Davidson County, the home of Nashville, received the most national media attention but only about a third of the claims. More than 18,000 claims came from Shelby County where Memphis is located.

"Clarksville, Centerville, Jackson, Brownsville, are some other areas hard hit,” said Bonnie and Rick Wiersma, Regional Managers at the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), "but that is not exclusive. So much of the state has been affected."

Bill Carr, Disaster Recovery Coordinator of The Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church, reported the startling statistics surrounding the disaster.

"In West Tennessee alone, approximately 27,900 families have been hit by the flood," said Carr. "Close to 15 percent of these families will need long-term recovery assistance. The Shelby County area has about 18,000 flood victims, and there is a large amount of undocumented people there. FEMA has been very helpful, and has paid about $29 million to residents. As of June 1st, $112,733,995 has been paid out in housing assistance. $16,211,146 went to non-housing assistance. The long-term recovery procedures are just getting started." Faith-based and non-profit organizations such as CRWRC, Mennonite Disaster Service, and the Antioch United Methodist Church with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) which provided more than 12,000 flood buckets, in addition to recruiting volunteers and overseeing local clean up efforts, have started fundraising to combat the strain on resources needed for home repairs.

During the flooding, West Tennessee residents also suffered a tornado and two windstorms.

"With the added destruction, the loss to the agricultural industry is so far about $1.3 billion. The impact on farming alone will be astronomical," added Carr. "Everyone will feel the damage done to the farms; farmers are really hurt severely, and this a major concern for the long run. Many farmlands are covered in sand and debris. One in particular I just saw the other day was covered by literally thousands of tires."

Jason Brock, a Disaster Response Coordinator for The United Methodist Church Disaster Response in Central Tennessee, said long-term recovery organizations are being developed.

"Twenty-eight counties have been declared major disasters here," said Brock. "There are nine different geographic areas that are currently pulling together long term recovery committees, and we're beginning to schedule teams for over the next year."

According to a FEMA spokesperson, Ken Spolitzky, the FEMA Volunteer Agency Liaison (VAL) is working with more than 100 nonprofit organizations throughout the state of Tennessee to assist residents displaced from their homes.

"Right after the floods hit, we had people go in and conduct investigations as well as cleanups," said Scott Sundberg of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "What we found was that many locals had such a sense of perseverance, that they wanted to take a lot of the clean up and repairs into their own hands. Obviously this didn’t apply to institution-buildings like the Grand Old Opry and the Opryland Hotel, but the initial procedures were taken care of fairly quickly."

Now, with the immediate response stage complete, cleanup has slowed, and authorities are looking at long-term solutions.

"Long-term solutions are being planned out, and slowly, things are progressing. Many people who live here are determined to make the most of a crisis situation," Sundberg explained.

There is still much work to be done Voorhees said.

"I began coordinating the volunteer effort for the Southeast Nashville area through the Lighthouse Baptist Church," he said. "Through what I was seeing with the organization Hands on Nashville, it became clear that they needed assistance, mainly in identifying the projects that needed to be tackled to handle these conflicts brought about by the flood. So we began recruiting volunteers, and initially for the first 10 days or so, we had about 100-150 people per day helping out. Now, unfortunately, those numbers are dropping."

"I would say that we alone sent out at least twenty-five hundred volunteers in Southeast Nashville," added Voorhees. "But, like I said, the pace of work in the volunteer corps has slowed significantly. People are returning to ‘real life;’ they have work obligations, and some of the larger piles of debris are no longer visible. But the FEMA Coordination Center has just reported that there are still 180 projects related to clean up just in Davidson County. Sadly, it’s becoming out of sight, out of mind."

Other disaster response groups have been lending hands to help carry the burden of repairing and rebuilding both the residential and iconic structures of the impacted towns and cities. It’s these iconic buildings, such as the Grand Old Opry, that provide a large portion of Nashville’s tourism profit, and Voorhees believes this is a major concern of the Tennessee tourism bureau.

"It’s a matter of competing needs. What we’re seeing is that the city leaders would like to finish the clean up quickly and efficiently, but to keep it quiet at the same time, so as to avoid deterring tourism. But as a result, the level of necessity becomes unclear to civilians hearing this," added Voorhees. "Plus, the CMA Festival expects to bring in about 80,000 country music fans, which obviously is a big help to the economy. So the reports issued out of Nashville about the flood are saying, yes, we were hit hard, but we’re ok come down! Unfortunately the same is not true for the local neighborhoods. The scope of the disaster should not be diminished."

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