Middle Tennessee begins long recovery from devastating tornadoes

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Volunteer Jonathan Abarquez hands North Nashville resident Brenda Bryant a plate of food from the McGruder Family Resource Center kitchen on Wednesday, March 4, the day after deadly tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee. The McGruder Center, managed by Catholic Charities of Tennessee, lost power in the storm, but volunteers showed up in droves to help the community meet its immediate needs. Photos by Theresa Laurence

In the wake of deadly tornadoes that ripped across Middle Tennessee in the early hours of Tuesday, March 3, and left at least 24 people dead, the Diocese of Nashville and the Catholic community are responding to the needs, both immediate and long-term, of those affected.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding has visited the affected pastors and churches in Nashville and offered prayers of support for all those suffering from the trauma of the disaster. 

He has received messages of support from Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. “As the personal representative of the Holy Father in this country, I assure you of his prayers in this difficult situation,” the letter said.

Diocesan parishes and schools sprang into action after the storm. Holy Rosary parish in Donelson served as the site of a Red Cross emergency shelter on Tuesday, March 3, and a number of churches and schools were collecting supplies such as bottled water and baby formula for tornado victims.

The Knights of Columbus has been marshaling its members to donate money, materials and manpower to relief efforts. “In the coming days, we will offer the strength of unity of nearly 12,000 Knights across the state as we go to work to bring relief to this disaster,” State Deputy Michael McCusker wrote in a letter to local Knights. 

“Charity is the first and foremost principle of our Order, and the Tennessee State Council is working in conjunction with the Diocese of Nashville to coordinate a statewide K of C charitable effort.” 

The Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville had planned to host a Red Cross blood drive on Monday, March 9, but had to postpone it because the Red Cross needed resources for a blood drive in Cookeville, the Putnam County seat, where 18 people died in the tornado. A rescheduled date for the CPC blood drive will be announced soon.

The Catholic Schools Office is exploring how it might help Donelson Christian Academy, which was destroyed by the tornado and will be looking to relocate students to finish the school year. 

Catholic Charities of Tennessee is also on the front lines of responding to the needs of tornado victims. “We have a balance between the work that doesn’t stop and the emergency work,” said Judy Orr, executive director of Catholic Charities. 

For example, Wendy Overlock, who oversees the Loaves and Fishes community meal program at Holy Name Church in East Nashville, managed a regularly scheduled Wednesday meal service while also serving as the Catholic Charities emergency assistance coordinator, fielding calls from those in need, those who want to help, and communications with state emergency management officials. 

“It’s a lot,” she said. “But we have a lot of helpers.”

On Wednesday morning, March 4, Overlock and her team of volunteers made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out to their guests in the hard-hit East Nashville neighborhood where Holy Name is located since the building had no power. 

“We went back to how we started,” she said, which was the simple act of handing out sandwiches to the homeless 30 years ago. 

Meanwhile, at the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, which is managed by Catholic Charities, volunteers from Gideon’s Army and Metro Nashville Public Schools, among others, showed up in droves to meet the immediate needs of people in the neighborhood. 

Observing people who had lost homes or power load up supplies by the garbage bag and wagon load, McGruder director Alisha Haddock noted, “This is what happens when tragedy strikes, we come together.”

Even though the power was out at McGruder, volunteers worked in the kitchen normally used for the Catholic Charities Culinary Training Academy to heat up prepared food to serve anyone in need. “The community knows they can count on us here,” Haddock said. 

As Catholic Charities’ North Nashville response moves forward, Haddock said her staff will “go out in the community and put hands on the situation. There’s a lot of seniors who are unseen, and we want them to know they are being seen and helped.”

Catholic Charities is just beginning to map out a longer-term plan to help those suffering after the storm. With key staff members affected by the tornado themselves, and a long-planned major fundraising event scheduled for March 4, Orr was just beginning to formulate the organization’s relief plans on Thursday, March 5. “A thoughtful, organized approach will provide the most relief,” she said. 

“The work of Catholic Charities is really rebuilding of lives after the emergency,” Orr said. “We anticipate a lot of people in need of counseling after the trauma of this event, the loss of life and homes, this could be a setback from which some people cannot recover.”

Catholic Charities of Tennessee has already received a $10,000 grant from Catholic Charities USA, which will be used to meet the immediate needs of those affected, most likely in the form of gift cards for groceries and supplies. 

“Our staff members have the protocols in place to assess the needs and connect people with the resources they need,” Orr said. 

Catholic Charities has received more than $9,000 in additional donations from those in Tennessee and surrounding states. The Diocese of Nashville has so far received monetary donations of over $24,000 to help parishes and people affected by the tornado. Donors are encouraged to give online through www.dioceseofnashville.com or www.cctenn.org/donate.cfm.

The grant money, and additional donations, could be used to beef up the Catholic Charities counseling staff, which Orr anticipates will be greatly needed. “People will have needs beyond ‘I have a hole in my roof’ to ‘I have a hole in my heart,’” she said. 

Surviving and rebuilding

It’s likely that many people in Putnam County, which suffered the greatest loss of life from the tornadoes, will have holes in their hearts for some time to come. At least 18 deaths have been reported by officials in Putnam County, about 80 miles east of Nashville along Interstate 40.

The nearest parish, St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville, was not damaged by the tornado.

The niece of St. Thomas’ secretary Beatriz Alvarez, her husband and their two children rode out the tornado that leveled their house by hiding in their bathtub.

“The only thing left was the living room floor and the tub where they were hiding,” Alvarez said. Miraculously, no was hurt, she said.

Holly Street in East Nashville was one of the hardest hit areas by the tornado. Debra Geiger, second from right, a resident and parishioner at Christ the King Church in Nashville, greeted neighbors and worked on cleaning out her house on Wednesday, March 4. The top floor of her house was ripped off by the storm, but she, her husband and son were safe.

Alvarez lives in the Baxter area, about a five-minute drive from where the tornado touched down.

“We got a warning about 2 in the morning or a little bit before about a possible tornado and to take shelter,” Alvarez said. About 2:45 a.m., the weather calmed and she drove to her niece’s house because they couldn’t contact her.

They found her niece and her family unhurt, but “the house is gone completely,” Alvarez said.

“There are quite a few parishioners in that area, but we haven’t been able to get in contact with them” because phone and internet service was still down, Alvarez said.

In the days following the tornado, the parish was reaching out to parishioners via text messages and social media to ask if everyone is safe, Alvarez said, but communication was still difficult due to power outages and lack of cell phone service.

Among those killed by the tornado when it hit Mt. Juliet were James and Donna Eaton, who were found lying side by side on their mattress, which had been thrown from their bed.

Mrs. Eaton’s younger brother, Arnold Mayfield, is a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville along with his wife Melanie and their daughter Alexandra “Xana” Mayfield, who is a junior at Pope John Paul II High School.

“My oldest sister was 16 years older than I and my twin brother,” Arnold Mayfield said. “My sister was almost a surrogate mother to us.”

“They were among the most loving people l’ve ever met in my life,” Mayfield said of his sister and brother-in-law. “They shared the message of God with everyone they came into contact with.”

The Eatons were members of the First Baptist Church of Mt. Juliet for nearly 40 years. Mayfield converted to Catholicism at the birth of his daughter, he said.

“They touched so many lives with their actions and their deeds,” Mayfield said of his sister, who was 81, and his brother-in-law, whose 85th birthday was the day after the tornado struck. “They showed their love for God in everything in their daily lives.”

Mayfield’s nephew, a policeman at the Nashville airport, rushed to the scene when he realized the tornado was headed to Catalpa Drive where his grandparents lived. “Their house took a direct hit,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield got word about 4 a.m. Tuesday that his sister and brother-in-law were missing, and about 30 minutes later got the word that they had been found dead.

“They fell asleep together and they woke up with God,” Mayfield said. “That’s how I think about it.”

In East Nashville, along Holly Street, a familiar path of destruction could be seen, but while homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, there was no loss of life and only a few injuries reported. 

“I’m in shock, really, how lucky we were,” said Debra Geiger, a Holly Street resident and parishioner and religious education teacher at Christ the King Church in Nashville. 

She, her husband Mike and their son quickly went to their basement when they heard the emergency warnings. The tornado was moving so fast that by the time Mike went back up to get their dog, the storm had passed over, ripping off the second-floor roof of their house and leaving trees and debris everywhere in their yard. “I’ve never seen anything like this, but at least we have a structure left,” she said. While the Geigers will have to move out temporarily, “no doubt we plan to rebuild,” she said. 

The hard part now, Geiger said, is the uncertainty, where they will live while they rebuild, and where their son will be going to school while Meigs Magnet School rebuilds. “We just don’t know.”

Andy Telli contributed to this report.