What would you do if you came home one day to find 8 strangers removing everything you owned from your home?
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.