Thousands of volunteers deploy in Nashville for massive tornado cleanup effort

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As catastrophe turns to recovery, thousands of volunteers deployed into all corners of Nashville to aid in cleanup efforts Saturday after a tornado tore through the city earlier this week.

Volunteers and tools crammed cars headed straight into the neighborhoods of North Nashville.

The sound of chainsaws buzzed throughout the area as volunteers hauled tornado debris out for collection along the curbs, sorting the mixed debris into three different piles for pickup.

On one corner lot, volunteers helped a man sift through his belongings in a bedroom that the storm had left exposed for the outside to see.

He had lost his wedding ring.

Memories recovered:Photos rediscovered miles away after Tennessee tornado

Samaritan Purse volunteers lift a side wall section of a tornado destroyed house while clearing an area around home on Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Cookeville, Tenn.

As trucks pulled up to the the Lee Chapel AME Church, dozens of water cases were strategically fitted in the bed, along with diapers, gloves and feminine products – to be sent to other locations throughout the city that needed specific materials.

Scenes like this played out across the region, including in East Nashville, Donelson, Hermitage, Mount Juliet and Lebanon, areas hits by the EF-3 tornado that traveled approximately 60 miles through the city on its way east.

“I don’t think any city could feel prouder than Nashville today,” Mayor John Cooper told The Tennessean. He had started his day thanking volunteers in Hermitage before checking on residents again in the Donelson Christian Academy neighborhood.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper leans in to a Metro Police Officer to thank them for their work in the Stanford Estates subdivision of Donelson in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

The storm tore apart the school and moved metal trailers hundreds of feet, uprooted trees and shattered the lives of many in an otherwise quiet community near Nashville’s airport.

Some out for the first time to volunteer timidly walked up to a desk set up outside Lee Chapel, where organizers with Hands On Nashville helped sign them in.

“I’m just trying to figure out where I’m needed. But I’m not sure if I can be helpful,” said a woman.

“That’s OK. Thank you for just being here,” said an organizer.

He helped her get started by handing her a pair of gloves, a few large trash bags and a set of instructions to join with a group wearing bright yellow shirts.

Volunteers line up for assignments and to get spare equipment before hading out for work in the Stanford Estates subdivision of Donelson in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

“It’s amazing to see the community just come together, both those who have been affected and people who haven’t been. Everyone is really coming together for this effort,” said Lily Sronkoski, an Americorps member with Hands On Nashville.

Craig Lund walked up and down one street countless times as he cleared debris from the roadway to allow city crews access to parts of the street. The day before, he had surveyed homes to see how much tarp they needed to cover roofs and windows.

Lund is from South Carolina and said he saw there was a need in Nashville, so he got in his truck and drove out. His daughter lives in Nashville.

“In Charleston we have terrible hurricanes and people come from all over to volunteer so I’m just trying to pay that back,” said Lund, who plans on sticking around until Tuesday.

By Saturday, much of the chaos in Stanford Estates in Donelson had been organized into heaping piles of metal and household appliances, lumber and windows, tree trunks and limbs.

Some stood 10-feet tall.

Minute by minute:How a deadly tornado cut a devastating path across Tennessee

Teresa Williams stood in the still morning, looking at the minutia of her life laid bare. Behind her, her husband, Clint, puttered about in what used to be her house, a structure torn to the foundation by Tuesday’s twister. Now, in a quiet moment before crews with wheelbarrows and chainsaws hit the streets again, the remnants of their home stood startlingly empty.

“I don’t know what he’s doing,” she said, laughing.

The couple are one of many who lost their homes in the Donelson neighborhood. They were asleep when an alert on Williams’ cellphone roused her. Husband and wife made it down the basement stairs just as a wall caved in, sending bricks toppling toward them.

Somehow, they emerged unscathed.

“Every time I’m here,” Mayor Cooper later told an organizer in the subdivision, “I cannot believe there were not more injuries.”

Lee Company worker Tucker Gill carefully folds tornado victims clothing after he gathered the items up around a destroyed home on Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Cookeville, Tenn.

Volunteers bustled inside Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church in Hermitage. The church began collecting donations Friday and will start distributing them Sunday afternoon, said Pastor Breonus Mitchell.

“I saw chainsaws and food trucks and volunteers” in North Nashville and East Nashville, Mitchell said. “I saw them everywhere. I didn’t see them in Hermitage. I felt like God was leading me for our church to be that hub for the individuals out here who have lost all, too. Sometimes when you’re farther away from the city, you get overlooked.”

Mitchell said he reached out Friday afternoon to Hands on Nashville. By Saturday afternoon, the walls of both floors of the church’s auditorium were lined with rakes, shovels, diapers, blankets, bottles of water, trash cans, trash bags, generators and more. In a separate building sat clothes, paper towels, cleaning supplies, Gatorade, sleeping bags, tarps, pillows and blankets. In a back room, volunteers hastily sorted cans of soup, crackers, cookies, chips, pasta and other foods.

“All of this is just a result of volunteers at Community Resource Center and just individuals showing up in trucks and cars saying, ‘Hey we got shovels, we got rakes, we stopped by Walmart, we have toiletries,'” Mitchell said. “It’s been amazing, and they’re still coming in.”

Follow Yihyun Jeong on Twitter: @yihyun_jeong.

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