In the days following April 27 and 28’s devastating storms, the idea for the South Central Community Disaster Relief Co-Op rose out of the rubble.
“We got the idea right after the tornadoes, when everyone was working to do what they could. The amount of damage was startling,” said South Central Ruritan President Bob Beals, who was out of town when the storms plowed through the area. “I got back into town on Sunday and my wife and I drove through Cannon Loop to visit some friends. They had lost their mobile home. The storm picked it up, threw it 250 feet, and pancaked it against another hill.”
Areas in both Washington and Greene counties were caught in the crosshairs of the deadly tornadoes and storms, and one of the hardest hit communities was South Central. Immediately, while victims of the storm were still in shock, the local Ruritan and Enon Baptist Church sprung into action. The Ruritan was fielding donations of hygiene products, like toothbrushes and shampoo, while Enon used its existing clothing ministry to take and distribute clothes. The day after the disaster, Enon also began feeding people at the church, while its members braved the damaged areas to remove trees from roads, tear down irreparable structures and tarp roofs, said its pastor, Roy Jenkins.
The division of donations and duties had Beals and Jenkins communicating and coordinating much of their organizations’ efforts, and they started talking about the best way to maximize, yet not duplicate, recovery efforts. From that, the “co-op as clearinghouse” structure began to take shape.
“The first thing that came up was the fact everyone was getting donations, including money,” Beals said. “We decided we could all work together to create a bigger pool of money, as well as create a central account for all the member groups. We could also show how the money was spent in one basic ledger.”
The idea spread to several other churches and civic/aid organizations, and the group took on a more formal structure. In addition to the South Central Ruritan and Enon Baptist, the Nolichucky Fire Department is a member, among others. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Eastern Eight and the Washington County mayor’s office are also involved; the Appalachia Service Project has also donated labor and materials.
Right now, the co-op has a little more than $50,000 in combined funds from the member organizations to use toward storm recovery. Each member keeps its funds separate, but makes them available at the discretion of the co-op, Beals explained.
Since its inception, the co-op has developed an application for assistance and an aid review committee. Through its coordination, as well as with the help of other entities, huge progress has been made on three new homes for storm victims, and framing for a fourth is expected to go up this week.
Help has come from outside the co-op and outside the South Central community as well. The Horse Creek Church of God and North Carolina’s Mountain View Independent Methodist Church, though not members of the co-op, have donated labor and materials to help with homes in the Cannon Loop area.
Most of the relief work so far has been housing-related, as co-op members said they wanted to work to address the biggest and most basic need first.
“Some of the first people we started putting houses up for had lost their homes,” Beals said. “That’s the thing that stands out in front of them: ‘We don’t have a home.’ ”
Gordon Edwards, a retiree and Jonesborough resident, showed up to help at Enon Baptist one of the first days after the storms, and his role has now grown into one directly involved with the homes’ constructions.
“I showed up and there was work to be done. It evolved into this,” said Edwards, standing outside a home under construction. “By far this is the worst damage I’ve ever seen, but the resourcefulness of these folks has been humbling for me.”
Work ranges from replacing or removing trailers and property destroyed by the storms to repairing porches, replacing sheetrock and installing new windows, Edwards said.
At the current project, a home is going up where there was once a trailer — a financial investment, for sure, but also a nod to safety in the case of another powerful storm. The homes cost around $25,000 to build, but would be worth between $60,000 and $70,000 on the open market.
“We realized we could build a house cheaper than they could buy a used trailer,” Jenkins said. “Most of the expense is buying materials. About 90 percent of the labor has been free.”
ASP members and Edwards are working this week on a home for Georgia Morelock, whose single-wide trailer was destroyed the second night of storms. She spent that night huddled in her neighbor’s home, but it was barely an escape — the wind ripped off the roof of the room in which she took cover and threw debris against the walls.
When the storms subsided and she emerged, she discovered her trailer thrown backward down a hill, totally crushed.
“I just had no idea where to start,” she said.
She visited a church just down the road, which had set up a shelter and help center in the hours immediately following the storm. There, she found out about the co-op, applied for aid, and was approved.
Her new home should be completed in about a month, and she can only shake her head at the progress.
“I never expected people to be this kind, not like that,” she said. “Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Morelock’s life might never be the same, Edwards said, but a home to call her own will start her off on the right path. It’s clear he has formed a friendship with her, and he realizes just talking about the storms is a healing process for her.
“People need counseling, and folks are working on that piece, too,” Edwards said. “The spiritual community is really what’s at work. It’s neighbors helping neighbors.”
For Morelock, it’s a slow but steady recovery. She has just started being able to stay in bed during thunderstorms, without pacing and watching the sky. She lost jewelry, family pictures and valuables, her garden and cans upon cans of her own beans.
In her purse, she carries pictures of the destruction to her home and property. Some of her things are saved under a tarp in her front lawn, but she’s afraid to check on their condition.
Her other belongings were scattered for hundreds of yards into the wooded area behind her lot, but she hasn’t ventured into the woods to see what else she can find just yet — she doesn’t want to run into snakes, her biggest fear, bigger even than another storm.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” Morelock said. “It’s hard to think and be reminded of all you’ve lost.”
Yet, she admits, she wouldn’t have even been able to speak about the storm in its immediate aftermath. Now, she can chuckle about her former bathtub’s new home on a hill in the distance.
With the amount of damage in Morelock’s neighborhood of Cannon Loop, Edwards is surprised how few homeowners have come forward to ask for assistance.
“I have been surprised at the amount of people who haven’t asked for help. We definitely need to spread the word,” he said. “We want to do as much for as many as we can.”
The co-op can now also handle furniture donations, as it’s secured a warehouse in Erwin to handle them. Beals said the warehouse donations can help the newly constructed houses feel more like a home, and can also serve as replacements for damaged furniture and household items. The Lions Club has also donated mattresses for storm victims.
No matter the method, the co-op’s main aim is recovery, Beals said.
“We want to put people back in a similar condition as they were in on April 26, so they can start moving on,” Beals said. “That’s ultimately the goal of the co-op.”
The application for assistance is available online at www.washingtoncountytn.org/node/195, and paper copies are available at the South Central Ruritan, 2634 Tenn. Highway 107 in Chuckey.
Those interested in getting assistance or donating can contact the South Central Ruritan; Enon Baptist Church at 257-6119; or the mayor’s office at 753-1667.