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Months After the Floods, Help Is Still Needed

Volunteer this month to help neighbors cope or prepare for disaster

It started as a typical Sunday morning when Jamesenia Shelton woke to the sound of rain outside her house. Within an hour, the 72-year-old Nashville resident realized the day would be anything but normal.

Up to 20 inches of rain pushed high water from rivers and creeks into neighborhoods where flooding had never before been a concern. When the rain subsided, three rooms of Shelton’s house were under 5 feet of water.

“My whole house was surrounded to the point where the fire department had to come in with a boat to carry me out,” Shelton recalled.

Shelton joined more than 10,000 Tennessee residents displaced by one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the state.

From Memphis to Nashville, 46 counties suffered flood damage in May. Older residents were especially hard-hit. Of the roughly 68,000 Tennesseans who registered for government disaster assistance, one in five was over 50. Of the 24 people who lost their lives in the flood, eight were over 65.

Four months later, the state is still in emergency management mode and will be dealing with the aftermath for at least five years.

“Things will not come back to normal. There will be a new normal,” said Jeremy Heidt, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

While most government services are functioning, residents are in various stages of recovery. Some neighborhoods will be completely altered as a result of the flooding, Heidt said.

Recovery efforts were dealt a setback in mid-August when heavy rains triggered more flooding in some of the same Middle Tennessee areas that were flooded in May.

Shelton, who was recovering from major surgery when the May flood hit, spent two months at a local Quality Inn while her house was being repaired. Nearly everything in the three flooded rooms was unsalvageable, including her computer, refrigerator and artifacts from several trips to Africa.

Since May, her days have been spent securing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, applying for loans from the Small Business Administration and overseeing reconstruction.

“We’ve just been on a merry-go-round,” said Shelton, who moved back into her home in July. “I never would have thought this would happen.”

Since the disaster, AARP Tennessee has been getting information out about assistance, advising residents how to avoid scammers and providing hands-on help through a network of volunteers.

Residents are encouraged this month to lend a hand in the flood recovery and help others prepare for the future. From Sept. 13 to 18, AARP Tennessee is teaming with Davidson County on a massive home rebuilding project. Sign up online at the Hands on Nashville website or go to the AARP Tennessee website to join the effort. Tennesseans also can call 211, the community services help line anytime if they need help or want to donate time or money.

In light of the flood’s huge impact, AARP is also emphasizing the importance of disaster preparedness. “A few basic preparations can make a huge difference if a disaster does happen,” said Mimi Castaldi, AARP vice president for volunteer engagement.

“The important thing is to do it now, not when the tornado warnings are happening,” she said.

It’s important to have three days of supplies at the ready, including food, water and prescriptions that are up-to-date, Castaldi said. A disaster kit should also include any hard-to-replace items for those with special needs, including babies and pets.

Castaldi recommends AARP’s Operation Emergency Prepare tool kit, which includes a checklist of vital documents to have on hand in case of an emergency, including identification, medical and immunization records, Social Security and health insurance cards.

For now, affected residents like Vernedia Watson, 92, of Millington, are just trying to return to some semblance of the life they had before. After a couple of months living with her daughter, Watson was happy to return to her own space in July to tend to her garden of roses, gladiolas and hibiscus plants.

“What do I miss most? That’s really hard to tell because I love everything,” Watson said.

Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.


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