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Disaster Leaves Impression on First Time Volunteer

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A small community outside Speedwell, Tennessee is covered in debris. Driving down the neighborhoods where an EF-3 Tornado hit last Sunday, I see houses collapsed in upon themselves. Some buildings are standing, but a big white “X” scrawled with spray paint across doors and garages signal that they could come down at any moment.

The remains of a convenience store sit as a pile of rubble; the sign once promoting it is half buried under the remains of its roof. It’s two days after the disaster, and I’m riding with two American Red Cross volunteers in search of any homes that may have been overlooked on the first day. The fact that many of the street signs have been blown away makes our job difficult.

We drive down country road after country road, happy to see that many of the houses deeper in the community were unaffected. Still, the rest of the houses are in a sad state, and we find out that some of the residents do not have house insurance.

Thankfully, The Red Cross is in the business of disaster relief. Ami Anderson and Juli Sudman are experienced Red Cross volunteers from Blount County who have experience with Disaster Assessment work.

Juli tells me that although she has been working with the Red Cross for two years, seeing such devastation “never gets any easier.” Regardless, both women, along with the rest of the response team, are determined to offer aid to as many people as they can. Ami and Juli’s car is packed with water, comfort kits, and toys, and both of them are trained in Client Casework.

Amy has done Client Casework locally and nationally, in such disasters as Moore, Oklahoma and Hurricane Sandy. Their goal is to meet as many people as they can and offer monetary assistance if necessary.

Halfway through the day, we get a call telling us that a Speedwell resident has called the Red Cross asking for assistance. We are confused because the address they give us is one we’ve visited already.

We return to the house to find a young couple who lived in the guest house just behind this main address. The couple cares for the elderly property owner in exchange for use of the guest house. “Granny” as they call her is blind and has dementia, and the young woman laments that they frequently have to remind her that her house is gone.

The couple recalls that they were going about their evening as usual when the tornado hit. They said it came upon suddenly, and after making sure that Granny was safe they hid themselves in the only room in their house that did not have a window. When they storm had passed they looked up from their barricade of furniture to see that their roof was gone.

After getting them settled with lunch and comfort kits, Ami and Juli sat down with the couple to assess their needs. They were able to offer some assistance so they could buy gas and clothing. As the paper work was being processed, I talked to the young man. He turned to face the destruction around us and told me that he’s been living in this community his entire life. With a quiver in his voice he said the scene “just breaks your heart.”

Although devastated, the community is working hard to rebuild itself. Many residents have some form of temporary housing, and organizations both local and national are working to assist the neighborhoods by organizing clothing drives and clean-up crews.

The Red Cross will continue to check on the residents and connect them with partner agencies that can help them work towards long-term recovery.


Mia Pearson is a Public Affairs Volunteer and a Student at Maryville College.