Connecting the Dots for Wilson County Tornado Survivors

A clear and rigid boundary between those of us who can fend for ourselves and those who cannot does not exist. Millions of us teeter perilously on the margin of survival, one unfortunate event away from tumbling headfirst into the unknown.

For many Middle Tennesseans, that event was the March 3, 2020 deadly and destructive tornadoes.

You can’t imagine your home being hit by a tornado. You just can’t.

There’s the physical damage — timbers splintered, drywall smashed, shingles torn from the roof and exposing all your belongings to the elements.

Then there’s the loss of the essentials of life, the stuff we often take for granted.

No bed to sleep in. No food to eat. Life-supporting medications lost. And those eyeglasses — you’re practically blind without them — shattered or gone with the wind.

“There’s no playbook,” says Leslie Williams, Coordinator of Renewal for the Lebanon-based nonprofit Compassionate Hands. “There’s no way to prepare for something like this.”

The organization’s network of 40 Wilson County churches has been working together to provide winter shelters and year-round resources to neighbors in need since 2012, filling more than 10,000 beds and preparing 20,000 meals along the way.

After the tornadoes hit, Compassionate Hands quickly transitioned to assisting with storm relief. The tech-savvy Williams and Lebanon-native Keith Alexander were asked to assist with locating survivors and to connect them with case management and emotional support.

“Our community has been through so much in 2020 that takes a toll on your mental health,” Williams says. “PTSD can take months to appear.”

Locating survivors can prove difficult, and there’s a multitude of reasons relief can be delayed. Many are afraid to ask for help or believe others need it more than them.

“A lot of the time,” Williams explains, “people were in bad shape to begin with.”

Middle Tennessee’s underlying affordable housing crisis was a concern well before the storms. Rising interest rates, population growth, and a scarcity of homes drastically limited options for buyers or renters with fewer financial resources. The simple requirement of a fixed address has kept many survivors from applying or getting approved for benefits to which they are entitled.

“So many people I spoke to just wanted their feelings and experiences validated,” Williams says. “I just want people realize it’s not their fault.”

With a shelter-in-place order taking effect just weeks after the tornadoes swept through the area, many survivors would soon add lost income to their growing burdens.

Many just felt forgotten.

“If you’re working hourly or paycheck to paycheck, how do you plan for that?” Williams wonders. “It’s just easier when you have money.”

A recent report from the U.S. Federal Reserve revealed 40% of Americans didn’t have $400 in the bank or in credit for emergency expenses. How do you cover the multitude of bills, even the basics, after a disaster of this proportion? Or worse — how do you not sink further into debt?

“Thankfully, the volunteer effort in our county was incredible,” Williams says. “And behind the scenes, city, church and community leaders were working extremely hard to line up a team to activate the long-term recovery process.”

Utilizing $47,000 in grants from the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund administered by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, Compassionate Hands was able to play a significant role responding to survivors’ specific and wide-ranging needs.

“Funds were used to replace items lost in the tornadoes, including food, medications, eyeglasses and furnishings,” Williams says. “We were able to pay off utility bills and deposits, help with car repairs, rent, and hotel rooms.”

As examples, the organization contributed to the purchase of a camper van for a family forced to evacuate their rental property. It restocked classrooms in decimated schools when the insurance didn’t cover teachers’ personal items. It even relocated a single-mother and daughter into a new, fully furnished apartment, immediately changing their lives for the better.

While Compassionate Hands has formally wrapped up its tornado relief and recovery endeavors, Executive Director John Grant says, “We will continue to pray for and assist storm survivors in any way possible.”

“Everyone who has generously given to tornado relief can feel good knowing that so many people are still working tirelessly to reach survivors and make sure they receive proper resources,” Williams says. “We pray people will seek out the help that they need.

“Nobody,” she says, “should go through this alone.”