A community in recovery: Dresden begins to rebuild after tornado outbreak

Dresden, Tennessee is just over 30 miles south of Mayfield. The town of less than 3,000 people was hit by the same highly destructive and deadly storm system that devastated the Graves County community in December.

An EF-3 Tornado – part of a highly destructive and deadly storm system that traveled hundreds of miles across several states – tore Weakley county and downtown Dresden apart, injuring eight people on its way through central Tennessee. Its city hall and fire department were damaged, along with about 200 homes and 21 businesses. Two churches were also destroyed in Dresden – Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Dresden First United Methodist Church.

Today, almost three months later, Dresden continues to work on recovery.

“Our streets are open. People are going home, businesses are being rebuilt,” Dresden Mayor Jeff Washburn said. “It’s to thank the volunteers who came here and helped us in the emergency response phase, the first few days, and then continued after that for these two plus months to help us get back to work. “

Washburn remembers the Saturday after the tornado: the town was packed with people with chainsaws helping clear debris from the streets. The cleaning and opening of the streets took about two weeks.

Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum said support for Dresden came from across the region. Bynum said members of the business community in Martin, Tennessee, raised funds to help some of Dresden’s small businesses affected by the tornado, even donating funds to some competitors, and county and city mayors. cities across the state have also reached out to offer help. . The influx of aid could not have come at a better time, with disaster striking at the start of the festive period.

“If you were to pick a time, a time when a lot of people are home for the holidays, and do that sort of thing, that’s really beneficial in terms of response because we had a lot of people working during the Christmas season. and New Years holidays to help us get back on our feet,” Bynum said. “We’ve always known Weakley County is a great place to live and work, but it’s really come through over the past few weeks.”

One of the first steps after the initial cleanup was to move people out of damaged homes and obtain a variety of donations for those in need. Washburn said the donations went to residents of Weakley County and surrounding affected counties. The community has also opened a disaster recovery center to help the organization’s volunteers.

Like other communities affected by the storm, Dresden is forming a long-term recovery committee to help the city through this process. Washburn and Bynum will be ex-officio members of the committee, but it will primarily be led and staffed by community members like Karen and Tommy Wilson.

The Dresden, Tennessee, fire department was damaged during the December tornado outbreak.

The couple works with Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief and they know the area intimately. Tommy grew up in Dresden and some of the buildings that were destroyed by the tornado marked his life. When they arrived in Dresden after the tornadoes hit, they had a great idea of ​​how to start helping the community.

Tommy helped with the physical recovery and repair of things in Dresden – shingling houses and tearing down structures too damaged to repair. Karen helps manage and organize volunteers and donations – connecting volunteer carpenters with those in need of roofs and helping people navigate and connect with organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We usually step down at that time, (Tennessee Baptist) Disaster Relief does, because the disaster is over,” Tommy said. “Now we’re in the recovery part and that’s when other bands usually come in. But we’re from here, so we’re staying for the duration.”

Much of the recovery in Dresden so far is about rebuilding.

“There’s also a lot of rebuilding going on, home repairs going on,” Washburn said. “Then many roofs were replaced, many different roofing companies (were) involved in Dresden and it is recovering that way.”

Washburn said the biggest need yet to be met for the Dresden community will be getting housing back. There was already a shortage of affordable housing before the tornado.

“We’re going to demolish between 50 and 75 homes over the course of this deal and we were already a city in which there was a severe shortage of decent rental housing,” Washburn said. “Now it’s virtually non-existent if you can find any available rental accommodation in our city right now, and there’s a waiting list.”

Bynum said some of the families who were staying in the destroyed rental homes stayed there for years and had relatively affordable rent.

“Now when you look at the cost of construction and the cost of materials and the cost of labor, housing affordability has become really difficult, especially for those who have been most affected,” said said Bynum.

Washburn said the community tries to help people who have this need. Some people moved to different cities instead of looking for a new home in Dresden. Others are helped by charities and religious organizations that attempt to repair their homes or provide them with materials to weather the storm and come to a time when their home can be repaired. Other organizations have already come and built houses, but reconstruction and repair are not easy at this time.

“It’s hard to find a contractor right now to do the repair work, but the work is getting done,” Karen Wilson said. “They’re out there and they’re working about as fast as they can get.”

Along with the need for skilled workers, Wilson pointed out that the cost of materials is rising and tenants will be the ones paying for that long term with increased rent for rebuilt homes.

Dresden_TN_tornado_damage_downtown
In front of the Weakley County Courthouse, part of downtown Dresden, Tennessee was destroyed in December’s tornado outbreak.

Damage from the tornado affected homes large and small in the Dresden community, affecting subdivisions outside of town and homes near downtown. Karen said a disaster “is no respect of persons” as it hit all kinds of people in Dresden. Of the homes that had to be demolished due to the tornado, the Wilsons estimated that about half were rental homes.

There is always a great need for volunteers in Dresden.

“We need people who can finish the drywall and hang it, it wouldn’t just take skilled people,” Karen said. “We need volunteers to help these skilled people, but you need to have a skilled person to be able to tell them what to do and how to do it.”

One of the best ways to help people is to give people money, according to the Wilsons, because sometimes the items donated don’t match a family’s real needs.

Long-term recovery could take up to three years, according to what the Wilsons have heard. Tommy thinks Dresden could be fit in a year to a year and a half. Karen said the conventional wisdom is that it takes 550 days – or about 18 months – for disaster recovery.

“When a family has lost everything, and when they return to their apartment or house or whatever, everything has to be replaced, from the beds to the fork to the can opener,” Karen said.

Anticipating the needs of families as they return to their homes in Dresden is something Karen isn’t sure the community has done yet. She said this recovery phase is going to mean a lot of people have to realize what they no longer have. And Tommy said they’re starting to see a bit of the anger people are feeling about the tornado outbreak, being tired and exhausted from the circumstances they’re in and having other things that don’t bother them. normally.

“Our community and our recovery center offer counseling,” Karen said. “We have community conversation groups that will meet periodically, periodic town hall meetings to help people come in and let off steam and talk, well, that’s happened to me or I’ve felt it too.”

As Dresden begins to rebuild, the Wilsons said they heard of businesses and people who weren’t sure they wanted to stay in the area and decided to rebuild and restart in Dresden.

“It kind of talks about the process of what people do, about healing and the grieving process,” Karen said. “At first people are going to say ‘I’m not rebuilding, I’m not going to rebuild’ but now we’re almost three months away and (they’ll say) ‘Well yeah, I’m going to rebuild, I want to stay in Dresden.

The Wilsons said they also hear people say they want the help and donations given to go to someone who needs it most, that people don’t want to take resources away from people who could need more than them.

“And yes, some people need more, some people need less,” Karen said. “But you still have a need.”

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