By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — One year after storms devastated North Nashville, the scars left upon the landscape may be fading but those felt by the community are much deeper and more visible.
The city was already struggling to reconcile its budget before the March 3, 2020 storms and was further thrust into turmoil with the COVID-19 pandemic that reached the state just over a week later.
Embodying the essence of “Nashville Strong,” residents of the community banded together with a massive number of volunteers to hand out food, clothing and other necessary items to those in need. “There’s spirit in the community,” said Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite.
For the business owners and residents of this historic Nashville area, nonprofits and community organizations were a major lifeline, stepping up by collecting and distributing donations and holding food and clothing drives. Community organizations such as Lee A.M.E. Church, Hands On Nashville and Equity Alliance “pulled a lot of the weight,” Wilhoite said.
In the aftermath of the storms the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (CMFT)activated the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund to provide organizations serving victims with grants. The fund is designed to be flexible to react as needs change, CFMT said in a statement released Tuesday.
“The biggest struggle has been, and continues to be, helping those in need of affordable housing,” said Eileen Lowery, Director of United Methodist Committee On Relief’s Tornado Recovery Connection.
“There are survivors who were living with friends and family members prior to the tornado. Those friends and family members then moved away from the area after the tornado, which then created situations of survivors going from being unhoused to homeless,” she continued. “Others lost their affordable housing to not being able to find rental options within their financial means. Others relied on having housing near a bus route to be able to get to work, to only now not be able to find housing options near a bus route.”
Westminster Home Connection has been involved in the coordination of 50 construction referrals in Davidson County, with about 30 of those in the repair pipeline, according to a CFMT report.
Other organizations involved with the construction committee are: Armstrong Real Estate Foundation; Nazarene Disaster Relief, MidSouth District; Project Connect; Rebuilding Together Nashville; and Successful Survivors (Greater Heights Missionary Baptist Church).
Keith Branson, Westminster’s Executive Director, said homes relying on community assistance for repairing or rebuilding homes were either underinsured, had contractor issues that included pricing, substandard work or theft, or were uninsured. Branson noted that “contractor prices have risen significantly since March 2020.”
Each home is provided an average of $7,500 from the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund to complete the work and construction groups may contribute additional funds, CFMT said.
One of the biggest worries on the heels of the destruction was homeowners being misled or coerced into selling their homes. The “Don’t Sell Out North Nashville” movement gained ground, bringing the issue of vulture developers taking advantage of the most vulnerable in the city following the disaster.
“Some homes were uninsured because the home had been in the family for many years and didn’t have a mortgage, the survivor had limited income, etc.,” Branson said. “Some survivors did not qualify for assistance with home repairs because they decided to sell instead of repairing the home.”
Renters also faced a major upend from the destruction; some immediately impacted by the tornadoes and others left without shelter later when landlords sold their rentals.
The Davidson Co. Long Term Recovery Group has canvassed affected neighborhoods several times, sent direct mail pieces and analyzed data to find survivor households and remains actively seeking tornado survivors still in need of help. The Tornado Recovery Connection helpline is 615-270-9255.
The recently formed North Nashville Tornado Relief Coalition, which includes Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership (JUMP), Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship (IMF), Urban League, NAACP, Lee Chapel AME and New Covenant Christian Church, contributed $60,000.
As of December, the coalition had disbursed more than $46,000 in community assistance, said IMF president Chris Jackson, senior pastor of the Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church. This assistance has come in the form of shingle replacement, tree removal, general repairs and reconstruction support, Jackson added. The group is also partnering with the Fifteenth Avenue Community Development Corporation and the Teachers Credit Union.
A total of 431 tornado survivors have been served through the Tornado Recovery Connection helpline, operated by the Tennessee Conference of UMCOR.
Of the survivors,193 were referred to nonprofit resources in the community to serve their needs; 117 cases have been closed; and 121 survivors still have active cases.
CFMT has raised over $12.5 million from over 22,000 donors from all 50 states and 35 foreign countries and distributed $6.3 million in the form of 162 grants. Of that, $1.3 million has been pre-approved for repair and rebuild efforts in Davidson County.