‘It’s a million times better’
By Phil Kloer
With the storm approaching, Ray and Tammy Tallant made a pallet on the bedroom floor, lay down together and prayed. When the winds hit their mobile home, they could see the walls puckering inward, and seams popping and opening wide at the joints.
A few miles away, the Parker family crouched in their hallway as windows blew out. Terry Parker remembers the sounds of the tornado as a combination of snapping trees, breaking glass and howling wind.
On that day — April 27, 2011 — six tornadoes ravaged Cleveland, Tennessee, over a 13-hour period. Nine people died, and more than 1,600 homes were affected; some slightly damaged, some wiped clean from the earth.
The next morning, Cleveland was devastated. “My wife’s sisters called and said, ‘We’re coming to get you out of there,’” Parker said. “I said, ‘You can’t get in here. There’s trees in the street. There’s houses in the street.’”
“You couldn’t see our house,” Sandy Parker said. “All you could see from the front was downed trees.”
Swinging into action
The Cleveland Habitat for Humanity shut down its construction sites. They joined a quickly formed coalition of nonprofits that included the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way and Baptist church association.
“We said, ‘Let’s do whatever we have to do to help the community,’” said Matt Carlson, executive director.
Volunteers with chainsaws and tarps cut through tons of debris and covered roofs until serious repairs could start. Teams went door to door to assess damage. There was a lot of chaos, and a lot of organization to stem the chaos.
“The spirit that rose up in the community was pretty amazing,” said Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of Bradley County United Way. “It was overwhelming. Houses were just piles of sticks. Everyone looked to … Habitat. Habitat’s stature in this community was instrumental.”
As plans took shape, Cleveland set up a Long-Term Recovery Organization, with Carlson and Ryerson as co-chairs. Thus far it has helped more than 100 families, often with Habitat leading the effort.
New and improved
The Tallants’ mobile home was so badly damaged it had to be torn down. Habitat built a new house with them on the same lot, and they moved in Feb. 3.
“There ain’t no words,” said Ray, comparing their old trailer to their new house. “It’s a million times better. It’s like zero to hero.”
In the front yard, their son Elijah, 9, played on a wooden swing set Ray built. His bedroom is painted a startling shade of Incredible Hulk green; Habitat let him choose the color.
The best part of their new home is the safe room, a walk-in closet off the master bedroom that has been specially reinforced. “I wouldn’t take $1 million for that room and the security it gives my little boy,” Ray said. “When the weather radio starts going, he takes his sleeping bag and stays in there.”
The tornado damaged more than 50 percent of the Parkers’ home. They considered building a new Habitat home somewhere else, but Terry refused to leave the neighborhood where he had lived for 25 years and raised two children.
“I started working the day after,” said Terry, a construction worker. “Got some felt and shingles on the roof and did a patch job to keep it dry.”
Habitat volunteer groups then spent five-and-a-half months helping restore his home.
A year after the tornado, he showed off his beautiful wooden deck in back: “Habitat came out here with the people from Whirlpool, and they built this deck with us. I wasn’t expecting this much.”
“This house was built in 1958. It’s as old as me,” he said. “It still feels like home, but it’s renewed.”
Because Habitat was so integrated into the community recovery effort, Carlson has no idea how many people the affiliate has helped in the year since the storm. But the way the affiliate stepped up changed Habitat staffers’ view of what they do, and elevated its stature in the community.
“We are seen now less as homebuilders and more as community developers,” said Tammy Jones, the resource development director.
“It’s changed us,” said Carlson. “There was an old guard that said, ‘We need to build homes and that’s all we do.’ When this happened, there wasn’t even a choice. That change allowed us to have a lot of opportunities we haven’t had in the past. We already had goodwill; we already had trust. But when they saw us in action, it created some strong new partnerships. It’s going to pay dividends for years for us in terms of our growth.”
But Carlson and everyone at the affiliate emphasize that they were just part of a community-wide effort to restore Cleveland.
“I watched an insurance adjuster two days after the storm write down on a piece of paper this was an act of God,” said Bradley County Commissioner J. Adam Lowe. “But I’ve always asserted the act of God took place the following day.”
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Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.