HERMITAGE, Tennessee – As announced earlier in the week, President Donald Trump visited Tennessee Friday to survey the damage caused by the deadly tornado that passed through the state overnight Monday into Tuesday.
President Trump arrived at Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, as The Tennessee Star reported.
Meanwhile, hundreds of volunteers had already been at work for hours, helping families who were impacted by the storms start to put their lives back together.
In a Cul de Sac neighborhood in Hermitage less than 10 miles away, volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse hard at work, saw Air Force One fly overhead on the approach to the airfield.
About a half hour later, as three MV-22 Osprey’s and two UH-60 Black Hawk’s flew east over the general work area and toward Cookeville, Tennessee about 80 miles away, there was a pause as workers recognized the importance of the president’s mission.
President Trump had already directed aid Thursday to Tennessee to supplement state and local recovery efforts, The Star reported.
Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham as president and chairman of the board for the past 40 years, is a non-denominational Evangelical Christian international relief organization that provides spiritual and physical assistance to victims of natural disasters, war, poverty, famine and disease with the purpose of sharing God’s love through his son, Jesus Christ and promoting the Gospel.
They are apparently experts at rapid deployment as well.
According to Media Relations Coordinator Alyssa Benson, two Samaritan’s Purse units were mobilized in less than 12 hours after the devastating storm.
Those units are tractor trailers containing critical relief supplies, with one sent to Cookeville and the other in the Hermitage/Mt. Juliet area.
Samaritan’s Purse set up a base location at Grace Place Nashville Church on Central Pike. Volunteers register there, have a bunk to sleep on if they are from out of town, and can even shower in a mobile unit that also contains washers and dryers.
Those facilities are definitely needed, as volunteers working in the Hermitage and Mt. Juliet areas came from not only all over Tennessee including counties of Sumner, Robertson, Maury, Rutherford, Williamson and Loudon, but the states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, New York and Pennsylvania, as evidenced by the myriad of license plates on vehicles throughout the work areas and in the Grace Place parking lot.
In addition to the base set up in Putnam County on Tuesday, which was the hardest hit by the storms, a third base was set up in Donelson on Wednesday.
Ms. Benson told The Star that over 500 volunteers across the three locations were helping families affected by the storms by tarping roofs, cleaning up debris, removing downed trees and salvaging personal belongings.
At the Hermitage/Mt. Juliet location alone, 166 volunteers had shown up that morning.
“I’m impressed with the volunteer turnout coming from far and wide to help Nashville families who have lost everything,” said Ms. Benson, confirming “The Volunteer State” nickname.
As she was explaining the work efforts, Ms. Benson pointed to the home across the street that had 12 trees downed during the storm, all cleared by volunteers over the course of two days. The homeowner was overwhelmed, said Ms. Benson, especially since he thought he’d have to do all that work himself.
Meanwhile, on the side of the street she was standing, volunteers were tarping roofs and piling up broken fence sections and tree debris at the curb.
The equipment volunteers use, everything from chain saw to household tools, are brought to work sites in disaster response vehicles – about the size of a small moving truck – stocked from the large tractor trailers at the base location.
On a tour of the base tractor trailer, a volunteer pointed out the dozens of meticulously organized and fastidiously maintained cabinets and drawers that contained everything from the orange volunteer t-shirts, tools, chain saws to Bibles.
At the base location, Assistant Program Manager Tony Williamson said that Samaritan’s Purse monitors media to determine what disaster locations need their assistance. The organization, careful to “not step on community efforts,” coordinates with emergency management and local churches before coming into an area.
In addition to the volunteer efforts, Samaritan’s Purse performs an important reporting function. All volunteer hours are tallied and reported to local emergency management.
That information is then provided to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which enhances recovery dollars for local governments, based on a flat dollar-per-hour rate times the number of volunteers and the number of hours worked.
Volunteers told The Star that the Samaritan’s Purse operation is “a well-oiled machine.” They explained that all volunteers are put to use, with no one who wants to help being turned away.
One compared the Samaritan’s Purse experience to that of the Nashville flood recovery efforts in May 2010, which was very disorganized.
Affected homeowners can contact Samaritan’s Purse directly to request assistance. Team assessors, trained to identify the needs at a specific property, also go door-to-door offering assistance.
In either case, a work order is generated and logged. Program managers then determine and coordinate how and when to complete the work detailed on the work order.
While Samaritan’s Purse efforts are targeted to those most in need including military, elderly and impoverished, Williamson said they will help anyone.
While disasters such as those in Tennessee produce a large quantity of work, Samaritan’s Purse is mindful of the quality of work as well.
As Williamson explained, the goal is to have the nicest debris piles and make worksites as “contractor ready” as possible to minimize costs to the homeowner.
Williamson showed pictures on his phone from a “mud-out” home from the recent muddy-water floods in Jackson, Mississippi.
Obviously proud of the precision cutting and removal of damaged sheet rock at a height of two-feet and a half-inch, Williamson explained that attention to detail allows the contractor to come in and put up an exact half sheet during the reconstruction phase.
All of the work is done, as Williamson pointed to the tagline on the mobile shower unit, “helping in Jesus’ name.”
As such, each homeowner is presented with a Billy Graham Study Bible, signed by the volunteers who worked at their home.
Williamson explained, though, that it is not a matter of “this for that.”
“The best gift is the love of Jesus,” Williamson said.
What Samaritan’s Purse offers through their disaster relief efforts and the quality of work, Williamson explained, “Is not just a service to the homeowner, but a service to Jesus.”
Another faith-based organization responding to the disaster is Convoy of Hope.
Convoy of Hope is offering supplies such as bottled water, Powerade and cleaning supplies including paper towels, toilet paper, wipes, brooms, buckets at two locations through at last the weekend of March 7-8:
The Church at Pleasant Grove
Pleasant Grove Road, Mt. Juliet
First Baptist Church Mt. Juliet
735 N. Mt. Juliet Road, Mt. Juliet
Samaritan’s Purse will be in the affected areas as long as there is a need.
To request assistance from Samaritan’s Purse in the Donelson, Mt. Juliet and Hermitage areas call 615-681-0735 and in the Cookeville area call 931-261-8567.
To learn more about volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse, visit the website here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.