Skyhawk Nation Steps Up to Help Waverly, Humphreys County

UTM lends a hand in the midst of a devastating flood

Story by Bud Grimes | Photos by Steve Mantilla

Imagine you’re having a nightmare and then realize that it’s all too real. The worst of nightmares confronted Waverly and Humphreys County residents Saturday, Aug. 21, when torrential rains created rapid flooding, massive property destruction and the tragic loss of 20 lives in this community of 4,100 residents. Houston, Dickson and Hickman counties also experienced related flooding, but the brunt of the devastation occurred in Humphreys County and particularly in Waverly, where lives and livelihoods were forever changed.

No description seems adequate for the devastation: piles of debris along city streets and roadways, large dumpsters beside houses awaiting water-damaged materials and belongings, damaged roads and bridges, houses and businesses destroyed, school buildings rendered unusable. A short drive through the town on Highway 70 reveals a frightening story that brought national news attention and the need for volunteers to assist churches, relief organizations and others with relief and recovery. 

Among those moved to action was Jackie Johnson (‘08, ’10), UT Martin assistant vice chancellor for alumni relations and annual giving. The Fayette County native has strong Humphreys County ties through her mother, Phyllis Waggoner Taylor (’82), who was raised in the Plant Community near New Johnsonville. Her Aug. 31 call for volunteers included a simple plea: “Our friends in Humphreys County have supported our alma mater over the years. Now, it’s our turn to support them.” University of Tennessee alumni number 482 in Humphreys County, 280 of which are UT Martin graduates. 

The group assembled Sept. 18 at the designated Volunteer Reception Center (VRC), a former Save-A-Lot grocery store located about a mile west of downtown Waverly. Volunteers carpooled or traveled separately to Waverly because of COVID-19 restrictions, and masks were required in the building that contained donated work supplies and was staffed by volunteers. The UT Martin group was assigned clean-up duties at a mobile home park located across the Highway 70 Bypass near the Walmart next to Trace Creek. Arrival at the site revealed mobile homes either destroyed or rendered unlivable weeks earlier by the raging creek. One mobile home straddled a ravine, and while other units were still in place, piles of debris were deposited on the street and between the homes. 

The VRC site and work are coordinated by Inspiritus, formerly Lutheran Services of Georgia and Lutheran Services in Tennessee. Before work begins, Inspiritus team leader Tony Vanella is careful to assure that volunteers work safely. He advises volunteers to pace themselves in the heat and humidity, and he reminds those who help to clean the ravine to watch for snakes. The main tasks are to sort and move debris piles to an open area for easier loadout. Quickly evident in the wet piles are everything from insulation and plywood to furniture and personal items. As the work progresses, volunteer Jerry Reese (’87, ’88) discovers a family photo album and is asked to set it aside to display on one of the numerous tables in the VRC where salvaged photo and personal items are kept for possible return to their owners. 

Although the work is slow, some progress is evident when, about 90 minutes into the work, Vanella sends the team back to the VRC because of potential storms and flash flooding. Caution is especially high because of debris upstream possibly creating a potential unknown flooding hazard. Back at the VRC, lunch is provided by the Waverly Church of Christ, one of several local churches whose work in the tragedy is evident in a hurting community. 

While volunteers wait out the rain, Inspiritus volunteer and Austin, Texas, native Regina Pineda put the disaster into perspective. “It’s definitely one of the most difficult. The loss and the destruction is just so great,” she said. “And just hearing the stories of people who live here, and it literally happened within 12 minutes – not even just flash floods. It was like a tidal wave.” Her organization’s task is daunting “because we’ve had over 250 homeowners and even small businesses or businesses come in, requesting services from us.”

One of the organization’s important duties is registering volunteers and recording their hours, which are assigned a value to help offset some of the city’s and county’s recovery costs with FEMA. This means that every volunteer hour is important, and more workers are needed because “the progress of what we’re able to do is just going a lot slower than we’d expected and wanted and hoped.” 

Pineda said that other challenges include little to no construction material storage space, the need for dehumidifiers to dry in the insides of homes and finding people with trade skills such as electricians and plumbers. Flood damage in neighboring locations has made obtaining supplies more challenging, and other relief organizations had left to assist Hurricane Ida survivors. Given the circumstances, the road to recovery is going to be long and strenuous. “With just how everything’s going at the moment, at least five years, if not more,” Pineda said. “We’re thinking, ‘We’ve been doing this for a while, and this is some of the worst we’ve seen.’”

Gwen Reese (’88, ‘93) traveled with her husband, Jerry, from their home in Franklin to volunteer with fellow UTM alums. “First of all, incredible for the group of UT Martin alums living in the area to come and help out,” Gwen said. “… It’s been very touching. My heart goes out to the families that have lost everything.” Jerry added, “It seems like we didn’t do a lot today, but at the end of the day, every little bit counts.”

“This was the most devastating thing that I’ve ever seen in my life, and I hope to never see this again,” said Vicki Fry Whitworth (’79) who lives in Camden. “My heart just breaks for those in our community that have lost everything that they’ve ever had, and for us to be able to be here today does my heart good.” Although the task is overwhelming, she said that one person can make a difference. “There’s so much to do here, and we didn’t even begin to touch on it,” Whitworth said. “We could come back and volunteer and do just any little thing. It doesn’t have to be a big thing.”

Although the day was shortened by heavy rain and the threat of storms, Johnson was pleased with the turnout (36 signups and 20 attendees) and plans to return. “We’re always looking for new, good ideas for alumni engagement,” Johnson said. “Having a volunteer opportunity, one of this magnitude in the area, I knew it would be probably a good attendance, and it was.”

One of UT Martin’s current themes reminds alumni, prospective and current students, and friends of the institution that UTM is “a small-town university for community builders.” Waverly’s great flood of 2021 reminds everyone that building community also involves rebuilding communities when neighbors are hurting. If history tells us anything, Skyhawk Nation and many others aren’t finished helping this Middle Tennessee community remain #waverlystrong #humphreyscountystrong. 

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