The FEMA East Tennessee disaster recovery centers (in 10 counties, including Hamilton and Bradley) will be closed on Memorial Day. They reopen Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every day but Sunday thereafter.
Lamar Moreland stood next to his truck and watched more than 50 volunteers sweep through his property, collecting debris and piling it next to the heap that was once his house.
Next week they will be back to start laying blocks and pouring the foundation to replace the home the April 27 tornado snatched away.
“Even if I hit the Mega Millions lottery, I’ll never be able to repay them for what they are doing,” said Moreland, who lives near Flat Rock, Ala., in rural Jackson County, Ala. “I can’t thank everyone enough for what they’ve done to help us.”
Tennessee may be known as the Volunteer State, but in the month since tornadoes slammed the tri-state area, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee all have become a testament to the power of neighbors helping neighbors.
The numbers are staggering — thousands of volunteers have logged hundreds of thousands of hours, served countless meals, manned chain saws, hauled debris and handed out supplies. Donations for recovery and rebuilding efforts poured into almost every church and nonprofit group, with totals hard to determine. Church gyms and warehouses were stacked to the gills, emptied and filled again.
At every turn, people share the stories of selfless giving — the man who drove down from Minnesota to hand out brand-new Stihl chain saws, the couple from Massachusetts who said they couldn’t go to Japan to help tsunami victims but they could help in Alabama, the next-door-neighbor who took in a family of five who had lost their home, the man whose house was destroyed and who turned down gift cards because he thought his neighbor needed them more.
“It gives you goose bumps,” said Sherri Lowrey, who has helped organize aid to victims in Jackson County. “To think about the people that have come out and pulled together. The phones ring off the hooks, and we have had people come in from everywhere. They really, truly do care.”
OUTPOURING OF HELP
Even the volunteers say they have never seen such an outpouring of help, and longtime FEMA representatives shake their heads in disbelief.
“It wasn’t like this down in New Orleans during Katrina,” said Charles Dillon. The grizzled 48-year-old heads up Crescent City Carpenter’s House, a nonprofit organization that helped with rebuilding efforts after Katrina and is now on the ground in hard-hit areas in Alabama. “The community has come together — neighbors helping neighbors. It’s refreshing to see.”
And though recovery may seem to be moving along slowly a month after the storms, government agencies say volunteers have been the linchpin to helping communities recover as quickly as they have.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers from just about every state in the continental U.S.,” said Matthew Cason, administrator for the Bradley County Emergency Management Agency. “I can honestly say we would not be on the footing we are now if it weren’t for the volunteers. The scope of the damage is so monumental, there is no way the government by itself could have coped as well as we have without volunteers. They are absolutely vital to our efforts.”
Any total of volunteers and donations is only a rough guess, with many gaps. Most of the volunteers didn’t sign up or give their names before they picked up their chain saws and unloaded their Bobcats.
Church and community center organizers shrug when asked about the monetary value of supplies they have funneled through their doors. They can tell you they have unloaded dozens of tractor-trailers and hundreds of smaller trucks and vans that arrived at their doors. At the distribution center in Rainsville, Ala., donations showed up in steady streams almost 24 hours a day, ranging from two grocery bags full from the nearby Dollar General to tractor-trailer loads from far-flung states.
At Trenton United Methodist Church, which served as a distribution center for Dade County and parts of northeastern Alabama, Reece Fauscett estimated they received a quarter-million dollars worth of supplies in the weeks since the tornadoes.
“It’s hard to tell,” said Fauscett, the pastor of the church. “But I know this much. It was several big ol’ barrels of love and concern for their fellow men.”
Meals came from restaurants in small towns across the three states and dozens of churches and community kitchens. In those first days of chaos, no one took the time to track totals.
“We have no idea — there is no way we could have tracked it,” Lowrey said about the supplies that came through the Flat Rock Community Center.
Dillon, from Lebanon, Tenn., has one word for the reason he showed up in Jackson County three weeks ago — God. The guy who was once an alcoholic leads his volunteers with a boundless passion and caring.
He said John 15:12 — “Love each other as I have loved you” — is his personal command. He works with more than 150 church groups across the nation and any volunteers who show up. Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Huntsville, Ala., has promised him 50 volunteers a day for the next three months, he said.
Dillon plans to begin building homes in the area with volunteer labor, using donated supplies or those purchased by homeowners.
“God is using my talent to put forces together,” he said. “We feed; we meet needs; we clean up and build.”
He is not alone. In many areas, local churches were the first to set up grills in parking lots and hand out food and bottled water. Their gyms became disaster distribution centers for supplies. As the days passed and the enormity of the disaster grew evident, local churches networked with churches nationwide to organize volunteer efforts and bring teams to clear debris and tarp roofs.
“It’s not about different denominations or what church you belong to; it’s about a love for Jesus,” said Jay McAnnally, a chaplain for the Carl Black Automotive Group in Kennesaw, Ga. He has made at least 10 trips to Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia with loads of supplies and volunteers.
Jearld Smith, a retired TVA worker and a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Bryant, Ala., has spent almost every day in the last month clearing debris, unloading trucks and ferrying supplies to far-flung locations, mostly churches. He said he has no doubt that the quick response by church groups saved lives.
“There are people who would not have survived without them,” he said.
But he is quick to point out it is not about him or what his church has done.
“What drives me is so people can see God in all of this,” Smith said. “Don’t remember me; just see God.”
Smith said it is not just churches that have responded. Local volunteers — neighbors who saw their communities, the families and their friends hurting — have been there since the beginning.
He tells the story of the first day after the storms, when he took several of his grandchildren with him to help clear roads clogged with trees. As the day progressed, the group grew and grew until more than a dozen people manned chain saws. Most of them didn’t know one other; all of them were local volunteers who simply showed up.
“There was this one guy who showed up, really rough looking, the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to meet at night,” Smith said. The man never told anyone his name, but simply used his more powerful chain saw to clear trees that Smith’s smaller chain saw struggled to manage. “He never said a word, just worked and left.”
In Bradley County, Rochelle Mayberry called it grass-roots efforts that went above and beyond anything that both victims and volunteers could comprehend.
Mayberry is only 22. In another life, she worked for AmeriCorps VISTA at Lee College. Since the tornadoes, she has stepped into the role of coordinator for relief efforts for the county, working out of the county distribution center housed in a Salvation Army facility on Barney Lane.
“It was simply overwhelming,” Mayberry said. “Everyone put their egos aside about who was in charge and worked together to keep the main thing the main thing.”
In Trenton, Ga., the first Sunday after the storms, entire neighborhoods buzzed with cleanup activity. People walked the streets, asking if they could help. One woman showed up with her teenage sons and their friends, who worked the entire afternoon with only brief stops. One man brought a tractor from Lookout Mountain and helped move trees.
“They spend all their time dealing with the needs,” McAnnally said, talking about the local volunteers he has seen as he makes stops around the region. “When you see someone deeply involved in helping, they are usually natives to the area. Their whole lives are right here. They are the real heroes.”
As communities struggled to cope with how best to help, many of them turned to tools that have become available only in recent years — Twitter and Facebook. Facebook pages to help raise money, to help find survivors and to reconnect owners with their belongings have spread the story of the devastation across the world.
In Bradley County, Clark Campbell awoke on April 28 to see a tweet that eight people had been killed.
“My heart just sank,” Campbell said. “I knew it was bad, but that really drove it home. My first thought was what I could do.”
Campbell, a salesman for MacAuthority, was no stranger to social media, so he began tweeting and posting on Facebook to let the world know about what had happened in Bradley County. Within an hour, more than a dozen people had responded to his tweets. By that evening, the number had grown to hundreds.
Volunteers responding to the tweets adopted a devastated community and were feeding and housing its members, he said.
In the weeks that followed, Campbell eventually returned to his “real” job, but he has continued to oversee the social media response in coordinating volunteers in Bradley County.
“Four weeks later, it is still totally unbelievable to see what that one tweet did,” Campbell said. “I have never seen a community respond like this.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...