Sunday, May 16, 2010
That happened today to a 55 year old woman who lives in a forgotten part of East Nashville. I know because I was one of the people moving her stuff out of her house.
In this case, the woman erupted in an understandable fit of anger. Someone from FEMA had told her not to touch anything in her apartment until they had inspected it. She came home to find that her landlord had gathered a group of volunteers and was moving everything out into her side yard.
The fact that the landlord had to get the carpet up in order to avoid mold ruining his property was of little consequence. This woman had just lost everything she owned and here we were wrecking her only hope to get her life back together. She yelled at us to stop and put everything back. For a moment we did, though we knew we had to keep going.
Soon she and the landlord got into it. The landlord’s plight that he had to save his property fell on deaf ears. When you’ve just lost everything you own, empathy isn’t an emotion that’s in your tool kit.
Then her daughter showed up and things got even more intense. The daughter didn’t see us as volunteers trying to help. She saw strangers ruining her mother’s life. She absolutely lost it…screaming irrationally at the top of her lungs. It was the kind of raw emotion that scares you…the kind where the person has clearly lost control of herself. For a moment, I thought that things might get violent.
The daughter’s outburst seemed to have a calming effect on the mother, which allowed her to understand and accept that one of the relief coordinators received approval from FEMA to remove the possessions as long as the damage was documented.
The back story is that the landlord had already taken pictures and tried to get in touch with the woman before we entered to inform her of what we were doing. I’m not sure where the breakdown in communication was, but the bottom line was that if the carpet didn’t come up, he stood no chance of stopping the mold before it ruined the whole place.
A few minutes later, the woman came back into her house. She understood the situation and asked us to promise to put all of her things back. Visibly shaken, her anger soon turned to tears.
Watching the woman break down, the reality of the situation hit me. When you can drive home from the cleanup site to a clean house with a fridge full of food, it’s hard to really walk a mile in the victims’ shoes. But when you see a person who’s lost their home break down in front of you and sob uncontrollably, you start to gain a little perspective on the emotional toll this disaster is taking. With every “I lost everything” and “I don’t know what I’m going to do”, you start to understand the pain these victims are going through.
You realize that long after the amazing community outreach efforts have subsided, there will be thousands of Middle Tennesseans still trying to pick up the pieces and put their lives back together.
You hope that they can.
I spent the first two days of the flood relatively oblivious to the devastation. My neighborhood flooded a little bit, but within 12 hours everything was back to normal. A day later it was warm and sunny. Pretty much business as usual.
On Wednesday after the flooding, I went to lunch with a couple friends, still pretty unaware of the extent of the damage. Sure I knew people whose house had been flooded, but it didn’t really hit me until later that afternoon what that really meant. It wasn’t until I pulled off the interstate in Bellevue that I saw one of the areas hit by the flood that I finally got it.
It’s hard to describe what it looks like. No matter what I write, I can’t do it justice. Unless you watch TV on an iMax, you can’t imagine the scope of it. Devastation everywhere. Utter and complete ruin.
Imagine taking everything you own, trashing it, and then throwing it out in your front yard. I’m talking everything from your couch and toilet down to your salt and pepper shakers. Then rip up the
floors, tear out the drywall and throw that out there too. That’s what it looked like when I drove out to my friend’s house.
Every worldly possession the flood victims owned was sitting in a dripping mess by the road. Five to six feet high, and twenty to thirty feet deep. All across the front yard. Photo albums, tax documents and baby toys sat amongst dripping piles of insulation and drywall. A lifetime of memories laying in ruin. House after house after house. Destroyed.
A friend from elementary school was one of the victims. She, her husband and their kids barely made it out of their house before the water hit. In their garage sits a now-brown mini-van. There’s a layer of filthy sludge over all of it from where it was submerged. The two car seats in the back make for a pretty chilling image. Inside their house, volunteers are purposefully destroying the walls and floors. Everything wet must go. Somehow, my friend and her husband both manage to smile as they greet their frien
ds coming to help.
Across the street, another victim looked at his home, his life’s work, now in shambles. He’d just paid off the house after thirty years. Now it was gone. Like most victims living outside the flood plain, he doesn’t have flood insurance. This would be a devastating blow to anyone at anytime, but after the financial meltdown of the past two years, it’s crippling. He said that if his wife and kids weren’t with him yesterday, he probably would have shot himself. He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.
A couple miles southeast, a drive through River Plantation will literally take your breath away. If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s a very densely populated group of townhomes and houses that stretches for well over a mile. Almost every home on one side of the road is now vacant, the streets littered with devastation. Were the frames of the houses not still standing, you could easily think you’d driven into the city dump.
Just down the street is a house one of my high school friend’s grew up in. My friend woke his folks up early Sunday asking if they were all right. His mom got up, looked out the window and screamed no. In less than an hour, they were in waste deep water in their front yard. That same morning, another of my friends who lives just a few doors down launched his hunting boat in the street and helped rescue his neighbors off of their roofs.
This type of thing isn’t supposed to happen here. Not in Middle TN.
In the course of two days, the hopes and dreams of thousands of friends, neighbors and fellow Tennesseans have been destroyed.
Now, we’re all left to pick up the pieces and move forward.
The initial outpouring of volunteer efforts has been overwhelming. A FEMA rep said that that he’d never seen a community respond the way we have. Countless community groups, churches, businesses and individuals have acted swiftly and selflessly to help those in need.
In the first two weeks, we’ve shown the kind of community spirit that makes Nashville a place we’re all proud to call home. Now the real work of rebuilding begins, and we’ll need even more of that spirit in the weeks ahead.