When tornadoes are only the first of your worries

Why We Wrote This

How does a city deal with a natural disaster and a pandemic at the same time? In Nashville, residents are getting creative about how to help each other pick up the pieces after a spate of tornadoes.

John Partipilo
Ashley Burns (left) and Candice Temple take a moment to pray in front of what's left of their Nashville home because they were so grateful to walk away alive, March 3, 2020.

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Around 1 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, March 3, a cluster of tornadoes swept through middle Tennessee, leaving at least two dozen people dead and destroying thousands of homes and businesses, many of which were in the heart of Nashville. Just two days later, Tennessee reported its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. 

For Nashville, the tornadoes and pandemic have been a sort of one-two punch, leaving many scrambling to find shelter at a time when people are being told to stay home. It has also added another layer of difficulty to the tornado recovery process. 

Immediately following the tornado, over 26,000 people volunteered to help. They flooded the streets, making quick work of downed trees and debris, and began to set up massive distribution centers for donated food and supplies. But now they’re all being told to stay home. 

“With the tornado, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty and helping your neighbor out and moving stuff. Now we’re talking about keeping yourself [isolated],” says William Swann, director chief of Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management. “So how do we keep things moving and keep balance?”

It was 1 o’clock in the morning when it struck. Winston Morelock and his wife, Wilma Faye, were in bed in their home in East Nashville that they’d shared for 42 years.

The tornado sirens pierced through the night, and then they stopped. There was no sound, Mr. Morelock recalls, and then “all at once it was on top of us.” 

Broken glass, chunks of wood, and parts of the ceiling flew everywhere. Mr. Morelock pulled the mattress over himself and his wife just as the roof and side of their house was ripped away by the swirling storm.

“The next morning, at first light, when I saw what was left of our home, I fell apart and started to cry,” Mr. Morelock says. “I was in shock. Shaking all over. Crying. We came so close to death.”

A cluster of tornadoes swept through middle Tennessee before dawn on Tuesday, March 3, killing at least two dozen people, with thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed and streets impassable with debris and downed power lines. Many more were left without power and some have just recently gotten it back on. 

It was the kind of natural disaster that typically makes the national news for days. Hordes of volunteers quickly flooded the streets where the tornado struck, moving debris, helping residents salvage belongings, and setting up food stations to help sustain those picking through the wreckage of their lives.

But Nashville – and the Morelocks, who are both in their 70s – soon faced another crisis: a pandemic. And this crisis meant the city would have to tell everyone to go home.

John Partipilo
Winston Morelock and his wife Wilma Faye were still shaken after a tornado shredded their home in East Nashville, March 3, 2020. "I thought we were dead but God had his hand around us".

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

On March 5, just two days after the tornado, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced that the state had its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. The patient resided in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. Just a few days later, Davidson County, which contains Nashville, confirmed its first case. Now, Tennessee has more than 900 confirmed cases, many in Davidson County.

When calls for social distancing swept the nation as concerns about the coronavirus rose earlier this month, middle Tennessee was still reeling from the tornadoes. Houses were still roofless, people were still crashing on friends’ and family’s couches or in hotels, and volunteers were still gathering by the hundreds to help with the recovery. 

This community, primed to show up physically for one another in a time of need, now grapples with an unprecedented challenge. How does a city deal with a natural disaster and a pandemic at the same time? 

“With the tornado, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty and helping your neighbor out and moving stuff. Now we’re talking about keeping yourself [isolated],” says William Swann, director chief of Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management. “So how do we keep things moving and keep balance? ... It’s going to take a lot of prayer and a lot of hard work and a lot of patience.”

A surge of volunteers

In the hours after the tornadoes, volunteers quickly swarmed the devastated neighborhoods looking for ways to help. Roving bands toting chainsaws made quick work of downed trees blocking the roads. Volunteers set up sandwich-making stations so residents wouldn’t have to think about how to eat while surveying the damage to their homes. Nonprofit organizations already engaged in the affected communities, like Gideon’s Army in North Nashville, quickly organized to canvass the neighborhoods to check on residents and determine what more needed to be done. 

In the days following the tornadoes, Hands On Nashville, an organization that served as a sort of clearing house for volunteers in the wake of the tornadoes, saw some 26,000 people sign up to volunteer on their website, says Lindsey Turner, director of communications at Hands On Nashville. Over the following weekend, people were actually told to stay home, find other ways to help, or volunteer at a later date because volunteers had overwhelmed the system. So many people had shown up that the streets became clogged and it was difficult for utility vehicles to get through to restore the power and do the heavier lifting. 

“The turnout from this city and the way that they have all come together, it has been incredibly overwhelming,” says Carter Jane Pond. Her apartment building in the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville was sideswiped by the tornado. 

Over the weekend after the tornado, Ms. Pond recalls, hundreds of volunteers showed up to her apartment building. Several of them helped Ms. Pond and her boyfriend move all of their salvageable belongings into a storage unit in about five hours.

“There were two people in the closet packing up all of our clothes, two people in the bathroom, three people unmounting our television, two people in the kitchen,” in addition to the couple and a friend, she says. “Empathy can be very overwhelming. It was truly a sight to behold.”

Getting creative

All of those hands made quick work of the small-scale debris cleanup, says Mr. Swann, and the city was able to shift to the heavy equipment phase two weeks after the tornado. FEMA joined the effort too, setting up booths throughout the area for survivors to come apply for federal disaster assistance. But over the weekend, FEMA reduced those in-person activities, allowing tornado survivors to apply online or via the phone without going to a recovery center. 

At the same time, the governor called for all schools in Tennessee to close last week to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And since Monday, March 23, Nashville has been under a “safer at home order,” which closes all nonessential businesses and encourages residents to stay home.

Still, volunteer efforts continued, even amid that changing tone. The focus had shifted from debris removal to donations, and organizations like Hands On Nashville, Gideon’s Army, and others established distribution centers for tornado victims to pick up donated food and supplies. 

Initially those spaces operated somewhat like a free grocery store, staffed with volunteers, says Tee Wilson, director of communications at Gideon’s Army. But as concerns spread, it quickly became apparent that adhering to social distancing guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make it impossible to continue to rely on large groups of people in the same warehouse together. 

“It’s definitely frustrating in a lot of ways because we were in the thick of responding to lots and lots of disparate kinds of needs, and suddenly [the coronavirus] hit and we had to completely reevaluate and are still in the process of reevaluating how it is volunteers can help in the recovery effort,” Ms. Turner of Hands On Nashville says. “It’s definitely a work in progress, and everything is changing so quickly.”

As the second week after the tornado came to a close, Hands On Nashville shifted to a drive-up model, where volunteers work in smaller groups and deliver requested supplies to visitors’ cars. In North Nashville, Gideon’s Army opted for a delivery model, bringing supplies to those affected by the tornado.

The tricky part is getting the word out and checking on people who the organization hasn’t already connected with, says Kate Briefs, disaster relief volunteer coordinator for Gideon’s Army. Immediately following the tornado, Gideon’s Army had volunteers canvassing the directly and obviously affected neighborhoods, but the plan was to repeat that and go farther into areas that had lost power or that the tornado impacted in another indirect way. With face-to-face contact reduced to a minimum, fewer volunteers bucking social distancing measures, and not many masks or other protection tools available, that isn’t really possible anymore. Instead, Gideon’s Army has shifted to a virtual system, working to build a network and a hotline for people to request assistance for themselves and others. 

But that doesn’t mean prioritizing tornado recovery over coronavirus prevention or halting their work, says Ms. Briefs. “When we see this pandemic, we just think, OK, it’s time to level up,” she says. “How do we need to be more creative to support our community as effectively as possible?”

John Partipilo
Tom Larson surveys the damage to his East Nashville home, March 4, 2020. He and his wife Misty are staying in a nearby rental. The couple was heartened by the number of volunteers who came out to help in the tornadoes' wake. "Now because of the virus no one can help even if they wanted to," says Mr. Larson. "It's mind boggling."

“Taking it day to day”

For Tom Larson, the tornado and the coronavirus have truly been a one-two punch. 

When the tornado hit, Mr. Larson had Airbnb guests staying upstairs in his home in East Nashville. When he realized this wasn’t just any storm, the guests, Mr. Larson, and his wife, Misty, hurried into the basement. As Mr. Larson turned to close the door, it was yanked out of his hand by the tornado and the winds threatened to pull him along with it. His guest – a preacher – grabbed onto his robe and pulled him to safety.

“The tornado was so traumatic,” Mr. Larson says.

Most of the Larsons’ home was destroyed, taking their Airbnb income with it. And more financial woes were yet to come. 

Like many in Nashville, Mr. Larson is a musician – a drummer – and plays gigs around Music City. Music is the backbone of Nashville’s culture, and underpins its vibrant tourist industry. Any night of the week, residents and visitors alike have lots of music to choose from, and Airbnb does a brisk business in the city – especially in East Nashville.

Last week, many music venues and bars began to close even before being ordered to by the city. All of Mr. Larson’s gigs were canceled. Service workers also reliant on the tourist economy have begun to be laid off as businesses shutter for the pandemic. This leaves questions about how these residents might be able to afford rebuilding.

“This is really pressing on us, and it’s so confusing,” Mr. Larson says. “We’re just taking it day to day.”

“A second to breathe”

For Ms. Pond, the coronavirus was not top of mind until she and her boyfriend had moved into a new apartment last week.

“The tornado was my priority No. 1,” Ms. Pond says. “It feels like now that I’m in a home and finally have a second to breathe, I am actually taking coronavirus seriously.”

Still, she adds, after living in a hotel since the tornado, the couple had no food and lacked some necessities lost in the tornado, so excursions have been necessary.

Despite having family in the area, the Morelocks have been staying alone in a hotel. They wear masks whenever they are out and about, prepare their own meals at the hotel, are mindful to wash their hands and stay away from other people as much as possible. 

“It is very worrisome,” Mr. Morelock says. “We have a lot of stress about the tornado and insurance, plus the virus.”

Still, he says, surviving the tornado strengthened his beliefs, and, “I have faith that God will help us with these problems somehow.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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