Community leaders gathered virtually Monday to reflect on last year’s devastating tornadoes and share how the community came together to help those in need.
What they each brought to discuss at the Nashville Rotary meeting turned out not to be stories of losses or the negative impacts remaining today, but the light that shone from the community as people came together for one another even as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the area days later.
One of those bright lights was an organization called VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters.
Rebecca Finley, of Finley and Bailey Strategic Communications, said the organization had been planned before the tornadoes, but the groundwork had only just begun March 2, 2020, the day she and partner Greg Bailey began working together.
“My business partner Greg Bailey and I entered into partnership with the foundation to begin laying the groundwork to reconvene organizations that answer the call to help,” she said. “We call it the VOAD.”
The coalition includes multiple groups, large and small, that handle different aspects of disaster recovery. The coalition exists so they could do so in a coordinated manner, and it continues to aid in tornado recovery today, Leow said.
Recovery was a common theme among the panelists speaking to the Rotary.
“What a time that we’ve had, 2020,” Nashville Fire and Emergency Management Director William Swann said. “When we talk about March 3, the tornado, in my mind the first thing that came up was all the things we went through, and I will say, how it will make us more of a resilient city.”
Swann noted that the tornado struck just before the city’s first COVID-19 case, and pointed out that even still, in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the tornado, which killed 25 Tennesseans and destroyed or damaged over 2,000 homes and businesses, people “came out in droves” to help one another.
He added that at one point there were so many volunteers that they couldn’t handle coordinating them on their own.
“We had to sort of reframe and house that energy, and we used Hands On Nashville and so many others to help us sort of corral and manage that, because we had so many volunteers that it sort of stopped and slowed down some of the progress with moving some of the heavy items that needed to be worked in moved,” he said.
Swann said the healthy variety of local disaster assistance organizations has made a huge difference in the way the city recovers. He said he could see that resilience in the community response.
Amy Fair, vice president of donor services for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, said her organization has been focused on getting money to the people who need it, as well as working on long-term recovery plans.
Roughly $12.5 million was raised over the past year to assist with recovery by the organization. About $6.3 million was given out in grants.
More is being approved, and the group is expecting to send out another round of grants within the next week, Fair said. The money is being handed out in pieces, and with intention, she said in a preemptive response to the common question, “Have you spent all the money yet?”
“Disaster recovery is a marathon; it’s not a sprint,” she said.
Tina Doniger, executive director of the Community Resource Center, said her organization also has focused a great deal on groundwork, with great results for families.
They’ve delivered mattresses, clothing and other goods to people in need over the past year.
“The CRC comes to the aid of our neighbors,” she said. “We are constantly there to support our neighbors.”
Doniger said that over the past year she has seen children jump for joy just at the sight of a mattress to keep them from sleeping on the floor.
And it was community donations that provided those things, she said. Immediately after the disaster, the group received clothes and pillows and other materials that it knew it didn’t need immediately but that would provide a great deal for long-term relief for families with whom it worked.
The organization also partnered with Westminster Home Connection to help with home repairs for families. Terry Rappuhn, who founded the group, also spoke at the meeting.
The organization came about after a previous disaster, the 2010 flood, and has been working to help people with disaster repair since. The group fixes about 250 homes per year, she said, including major reconstruction, and it helps people get money back from contractors who do shoddy work or run away with the money.
It also connects people to other groups that can offer them comprehensive services and case management for long-term aid, including mental health resources, finding temporary housing or child care.
Each speaker pointed out the efforts of the others, and the efforts of organizations that aid them and make their missions possible.
But what shone through each of their speeches was the camaraderie they saw among Nashville residents and the sense of duty they felt toward those residents as they continue their efforts.
“Our job is to make sure that even the most vulnerable in our community can recover from disaster,” Rappuhn said.
Rebecca Finley of Finley and Bailey Strategic Communications was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.