By David Dawson
FRANKLIN — More than a year after a series of tornadoes ripped through parts of Middle Tennessee, many people in the affected areas are still hurting.
And Tennessee Baptists are still helping.
Undaunted by the enormity of the workload, Tennessee Baptist disaster relief teams have remained in action, continuing to assist those in need. And there’s still a long way to the finish line.
“The truth is, for many people, the recovery is just beginning — and our efforts are ongoing,” said Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“Given the distance the storm track covered, you knew that it was going to take some time for residents to recover from what happened. So, we were prepared for it to be a long process.”
The timing of last spring’s tornadoes — which coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — made the recovery efforts all the more challenging. But the Tennessee Baptist DR teams pressed on. Why? Because that’s just what they do, Jones said. They come, they serve, they stay.
“I am always in awe of the way God uses TBDR volunteers in each disaster situation to bring help, hope and healing to those affected,” said Jones. “And that was certainly the case after the tornadoes.”
The tornadoes swept through Middle Tennessee in the early morning hours of March 3 of last year. More than 20 individuals lost their lives to the storms that left a path of destruction from Benton to Putnam counties. Nashville, Mount Juliet, Lebanon and Cookeville were also hit hard.
Tennessee Baptist disaster relief teams responded immediately, and during the initial response phase, TBDR volunteers recorded 1,231 volunteer days — equaling 11,644 volunteer hours — of service in those communities.
A few weeks later, in mid-April, southeast Tennessee was hit by more tornadoes, with most of the damage in the Cleveland and Chattanooga areas and surrounding communities. DR units once again sprang into action, despite the additional obstacles that were created by the COVID-19 precautions and protocols.
Jones said the response — in March and again in April — was amazing.
“I have never seen such a large-scale event in which the response part of the cleanup was accomplished so quickly,” said Jones. “And it was not just TBDR volunteers, but truly the ‘Volunteer State’ showed up in force to assist fellow Tennesseans. I am grateful for teams that rolled out to assist day after day.”
Jones noted that Tennessee Tech Baptist Collegiate Minister leader Ben Maddox played a pivotal role in the recovery efforts in the Cookeville area. Maddox organized students to help with the relief projects, and he put those teams in action almost immediately.
Mark Davis, director of missions for the Stone Association of Southern Baptist Churches, said the work that was done by volunteers in and around Cookeville was “both humbling and surreal, while exciting and vibrant at the same time.”
Davis noted that the volunteers found ways to connect with the community in a variety of ways — emotionally and spiritually.
“The volunteers were compassionate and caring toward the survivors as they helped to recover personal items among the carnage,” Davis said. “Seeing our volunteers pray with, cry with, laugh with, and work with the survivors was the greatest picture of The Good Samaritan that I have ever witnessed.”
Dave Shelley, director of missions for Wilson County Association, was on a mission trip with a large group of BCM students when the tornadoes hit. But he caught a flight home as soon as he could to help with recovery efforts.
Shelley noted that David Freeman, pastor of First Baptist Church, Lebanon, helped serve as the ‘point man’ in the recovery efforts.
In regard to the damage done in Cooke-ville, Davis said the tornado is still affecting the everyday lives of many.
“It’s still highly emotional, even 12 months out,” he said.
“As you drive through the tornado zone, there are houses that have been rebuilt, houses that are being built, and lots that are still empty. I imagine some of those lots will remain empty for some time longer, as homeowners continue to work through the emotional healing needed after surviving the tornado.”
Davis added that, “As an association, we have been able to help close to 40 families with rent, utilities, hotel stays, food, cars, clothes, etc. through the local churches. Some of those families were plugged into the church, and that care continues today.
“There are so many stories to hear and tell,” he said, “but the main point is that through this horrific event of destruction and loss of life, God continues to receive praise and honor for the ‘great things He hath done!’”
Rusty Sumrall, director of missions for the Nashville Baptist Association, was in Atlanta at a meeting of the North American Mission Board when he learned of the tornadic activity, which struck the offices of the Nashville Baptist Association on March 3.
The building’s shingled roof was destroyed, and the building took on extensive water damage. There was an estimated three inches of water in the upstairs of the two-story building.
Sumrall contacted several of his local leaders, who responded at once. “I have great guys here (in the association),” he told the Baptist and Reflector that day.
Jones noted that 2020 will be remembered as perhaps the most challenging year he has experienced in his tenure with disaster relief.
And yet, despite the obstacles, TBDR was more determined than ever to dig in and make a difference in the lives of those who were hurting.
“In 2020, amid the pandemic of COVID-19, TBDR volunteers recorded over 12,000 volunteer days and right around 105,000 volunteer hours serving others,” he said. “It makes me honored and humbled to serve with such great volunteer servants that serve through TBDR.” B&R