Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not one flood but two floods hit Middle Tennessee -- a reflection by Tom Nankervis after visiting four different flood areas

Note: Though this remembrance is largely positive, there are still major areas needing volunteer response. These areas are largely in rural areas or smaller communities. You can keep up with needs by signing in to the Tennessee Conference Emergency Relief blogsite at


“Everything from my life is gone . . . except for three pictures on the wall,’ the elderly woman stated as she glanced from her flood ravaged house to the pile of debris lining the street in front of her property. The feeling of being yanked from all physical connections to the past and thrown into a world where the past has washed away is all too common. Gone are the photos of her mother and father, her siblings, her friends in grade school, prom photos, graduation photos, certificates of academic accomplishment, marriage license, marriage photos, birth certificates for her children, photos of her children growing up, shots of her deceased husband of many years. The night table that has been in her family home for generations smashed beyond recognition. The antique clock from the 1850s—one that still chimed—torn apart. The list could go on and on and the stories were the same throughout Middle Tennessee.

In The Nation section of Nashville mounds of refuse lined both sides of the street for block after block.

For 36 hours everyone in the neighborhood felt secure despite dire predictions by television commentators. “We’ve lived here for years,” they responded to the predictions, “and have had some severe storms but there has never been flooding. Later came the realization that flood waters were moving up to the front of the house and that the depth of the water was continuing to rise.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” panicked residents shouted. Some waited too late and drowned before they could get out, or drowned when their automobile got swept away.” Some swam to safety grabbing tree limbs to hold themselves away from the flow of the water. Others were rescued by concerned neighbors, others by boat as they fought to stay safe at the highest point of their house. Some bewildered individuals even stayed chin-deep in the churning, polluted water as it came into the house. The question for many was, “If we leave, where do we go? Where do we stay?”

The critical thing about this disaster is the peril that persons felt, many of them children, in the place that was the source of safety, comfort, and hope; a fear that can’t be easily erased - fear in the loss of sanctuary, a dissolving of present day connections to the past. Not many survivors are showing outward panic, but there is a sense of dismay in their eyes, a sense that they have to keep doing something to fight the ravages of the storm, but despair in realizing that their usually sharp minds are not thinking clearly. The first flood was and is the cause of nightmares. There is a sense of funereal grief to go with the mental numbness.

Cumberland District Superintendent Tom Halliburton, Bishop Dick Wills, UMCOR Consulant Christy Smith, Disaster Response Director Jason Brock, the Rev. David Rainey, and Nashville DS John Collett. The group gathered at Bellevue United Methodist Church to tour flooded areas throughout the conference and to talk with persons heavily affected by the flood.. Rainey, the Bellevue pastor, bids the group farewell.

All of this was due to the FIRST FLOOD – and the sense of hopelessness and despair would have been immense if it wasn’t for the SECOND FLOOD. Even while the First Flood was at its worse there was a flood of concern – police officers, local fire departments, emergency response units. Neighbors with boats and rafts offered assistance in getting individuals and families to safety. When the waters were no longer at flood stage . . . the second flood hit, a flood of hope, love, and concern which struck Nashville and mid-state communities with major magnitude. There were a few scam artists unfortunately, but throughout the affected counties major organizations from Hands on Nashville, to neighborhood groups, to denominations, to concerned individuals and groups from outside the flooded area, even from outside the state, responded. The amount of volunteer labor and the speed with which the volunteers responded even shocked the professional emergency responders. Within hours, not days or weeks, persons were working throughout the community—with strong guidance from the professionals. While flood waters in the major rivers were still rising, trailer loads of UMCOR flood cleanup buckets arrived from the North Georgia and Alabama Conferences. It wasn’t long before a 18-wheeler delivered a shipment of flood cleanup buckets from the Sager-Brown UMCOR depot in Baldwin, Louisiana, and another was delivered to the Memphis Conference.

Suddenly friends and many strangers were gathered around flood victims for support. The task of cleaning up flood damage began – carpets and carpet pads were remove and thrown out, polluted and soaked wall board was removed and taken outside as garbage; damaged furnishings, stoves, refrigerators, were removed and thrown out, items that could possibly be salvaged or were obviously of personal value to the home owner/renter were taken to safety. All of this was done in consultation with the flood victims. If FLOOD ONE was overwhelming, the show of love and support in FLOOD TWO had mammoth impact. It brought hope where none existed. Flood victims shared their stories, and their fears. Persons listened. They acted as “family,” “consultant,” “worker bees.”

The flood ruined many personal and prized historic mementoes--here a child's toy

Before long everything that could mold or mildew or was polluted by sewer soaked water was outside – in several neighborhoods the garbage looked like gigantic walls stretching on for blocks on each side of the road. But these walls were different—because they almost seemed like historic monuments. This wasn’t just junk—it was the story, the history, the memories of individuals, or families.

Countless individuals were touched by the group of persons that came to help when life had fallen apart. As they talked to the volunteers they discovered friends, persons they did not know who treated them with love and respect. Volunteer groups contained persons with various backgrounds—at one place there were workers from Church of Christ, Baptist, United Methodist backgrounds working together as well as individuals with no religious faith. There were old people, young people, African Americans working on the home of a white family, Caucasians’ working on the homes of African Americans and Hispanics. The flood will linger in memory but along with the flood will be the vision of the Heavenly Kingdom—all persons working together as one to help a “brother” or a “sister.”

United Methodist youth formed a human chain to load Flood Buckets, just delivered by an UMCOR truck, into conference vehicles for distribution throughout the conference.

That’s not all. Outside on the street were inmates helping to move the garbage into trucks. Other groups and individuals were delivering food and water to volunteer workers. At Midwest Transportation Services, a trucking company near the Radnor Railroad Yards, several groups of youth from outside Nashville, together with adult advisors, had formed a human chain to load flood buckets that came from UMCOR Sager-Brown into a Tennessee Conference trailer and a rental truck so they could be distributed throughout the conference. I can’t even begin to remember all the United Methodist Churches I came in contact with as I made my way from one flooded area to another. David Lay from St. John’s was with me for part of the journey. He is the Nashville District emergency response person. Persons from West Nashville UMC including Sherry Woolsey were helping recruit volunteers as well as collecting food.

The St. Mark's Early Response VIM team was hard at work in area of Nashville called "The Nation"

The St. Mark’s Emergency Response truck was present along with a bunch of workers from St. Marks and from Murfreesboro. There were literally dozens of United Methodist Churches providing a substantial number of volunteers. In Carthage, Tennessee, Cookeville District Emergency Response person Russ Cain, was coordinating volunteer efforts for an Early Response Team from the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Dr. John Collette, Nashville District Superintendant, preached at Blakemore United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 9th. He focused on the United Methodist motto, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” in showing the response of United Methodist congregations to the flood. He noted especially the “Open Doors” part of the motto—as United Methodist congregations opened their doors to receive and harbor individuals and families that had been through the storm. Churches from Carthage UMC in the Cookeville District to Bellevue UMC provided ongoing hospitality, even sleeping accommodations for survivors. “Our doors will be open as long as it takes for people to get the help they need,” indicated Dr. Collette. “UMCOR and United Methodist responders are noted as being the last to leave an area that has suffered natural catastrophe and we will be here to help as long as it takes.”

Some other stories

As I walked on down the street a German Shepherd barked at me. Being a veterinarian’s son I stopped to talk to the dog. I noted that the only really happy videos I had seen showed two Labrador retrievers – who probably thought they were in heaven with water nearly everywhere to dash through and jump into. The dog owner said “The dog’s name is Rebel.” She went on to explain that he was a genuine flood hero. An adult daughter who couldn’t swim had his leash wrapped around her arms and she held on as the dog swam bravely from heavily flooded house to the safety of dry land. The water had some current and it was over human heads – but nine-year-old Rebel brought his loved one to safety.

Flood victims were desperate to preserve valuable papers, pictures and certificates--and to do whatever it takes to do so

One creative homeowner spread damp pictures and important certificates throughout her automobile—using the heat coming through the windows as a dependable way to dry out (or bake out) moisture from items of personal importance including a picture of her mom, her wedding picture, and various diplomas and certificates.