Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 237: Flood Recovery, Lake Therapy

My friend Emily sent me an email ahead of Day 237 that her church was organizing a team to go to Nashville to assist victims affected by the recent flooding. She had already decided to go and asked if I'd like to come along.

Volunteering in Tennessee for flood recovery sounded like a perfectly wonderful thing to do for Day 237's thing I've never done before. So I did.

We met early on Saturday morning at Emily's boyfriend Jay's house, and stopped for a quick breakfast, then gas, then coffee before getting on the road to Nashville. I joked that the trip was starting to feel like some of the road trips I've taken with women when it seems like it takes forever just to get on the interstate.

When we finally did get on the road, it was Emily, Jay and their friends Kyle and Lauren in one car and me following behind in my car. They had elected ahead of time to drive up to Tennessee and return the same day. I decided to stay in Nashville for the evening, so I drove separately.

I didn't mind at first, because I actually enjoy solo car rides, as long as there are plenty of good tunes to keep me occupied, which there were (Thank you Rolling Stones, and Exile on Main Street). After a week of inconsistent sleep, however, the long, mountainous trip by myself wasn't fun forever, and I was very happy when we finally arrived at our destination. Nashville is not as close as I thought it was.

I wasn't sure exactly what we would be doing as volunteers, and I wasn't exactly sure what kind of damage we'd find. I've seen the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes and the destruction is usually apparent right away with roofs ripped off homes and debris littering neighborhoods. I wondered if flooding damage looked the same. I've seen pictures on the news of houses and businesses under water, but what's left when the water dries up?

Though a lot of the cleanup effort had already been going on for several weeks, I still expected to see neighborhoods in ruins. But flooding damage, I came to find out, is not as easy to spot. In fact, had it not been for the volunteer tents set up along the way, I might not have noticed when we had entered the flood zone.

We checked in at the church and then drove ourselves over to the neighborhood where we were going to be working. Volunteers peppered the streets wearing gloves, carrying various tools, so I knew we'd arrived at an area affected by the flooding. I was surprised, however, that most of the houses, from the outside at least, looked fine.

Jay and I parked our cars and let the site manager know that we had arrived. He was very friendly, and thanked us for coming. Then he motioned towards one of the houses, and told us our group had already started working inside tearing down dry wall. When I looked over at the house there were dozens of men and women, some wearing surgical masks walking in and outside of the house, throwing dry wall out of windows, and stacking items from inside the house out on the side of the street.

Among the items by the road included furniture, desk lamps, school art projects, a plastic jewelry box. Looking at the stack of personal belongings made me sad, and I thought of the family that was forced to leave them, and their home, behind. Was there time to grab any of their belongings, or did they evacuate before they had time to think about any of that?

We walked over to the house to lend our assistance by picking up the drywall they were throwing out of windows and carrying it to the front of the house to stack it with the rest of the items that were to be thrown away. I caught a glimpse of the activity going on indoors and was amazed at what I saw. Inside this home that from the outside, appeared to be fine, was not just a frame of what once was.

It took five minutes for the five of us to assist with the drywall, and we were all starting to feel like our help could be better used at another location with less people, so we grabbed a rake and a shovel and took off down the street in hopes we could find someone else to help.

The site manager had instructed us to simply go door to door and ask anyone if they needed anything. He also explained that a lot of what was needed was simple yard cleanup. Yards and sidewalks had been littered with debris that needed to be raked or swept up and bagged so it could be hauled away.

For the most part it was an easy task, but one that really opened my eyes to the impact of flash floods. Pill bottles, kitchen tiles, makeup brushes, television wires were just some of the personal items I collected. The rising water had ravaged these homes, picking up sheds and flipping them upside down; in one case, a house's add-on had been ripped up from its foundation completely and moved from the backyard to the front.

When I asked anyone who lived in the neighborhood what would become of the homes in the neighborhood, no one could really tell me for sure. Some were still waiting to dry up all of the moisture inside to make a final assessment, others were unsalvagable and would likely be torn down, leaving the occupants to find another place to live.

In my own little sick game of, "What natural disaster is the absolute worst?," I always thought I'd rather suffer a hurricane or flooding simply because, I thought, at least there would be time to prepare, as opposed to earthquakes and tornadoes, that strike without warning. But after talking to people and seeing the condition of their homes, flooding often happens a lot more quickly than many realize and once it happens, the results can be devastating.

At midday, our team leader drove by where we were working and said lunch would be served on the next street over in the next few minutes. The news was exciting because I was starving. We walked over and saw the rest of our team sitting on the side of the street with paper sack lunches strewn about them. We looked around for a box or a bin where we might also find a sack lunch. But we couldn't find one.

That's because there weren't any lunches left.

When they saw us looking around, the project leaders darted their heads to the left and to the right as if by doing so, they might magically make new sack lunches appear for the five of us.

They apologized profusely for running out, and other volunteers who became aware of our predicament offered to share their lunches with us. One of the leaders even jumped in his truck in search of food for us. I was gracious and smiled because I could tell everyone felt badly, but inside I was freaking, certain that if I didn't eat something soon I was going to have a meltdown.

I'm not sure if Emily could tell how I felt, but she tried to call my nerves by telling me that she packed snacks and they were in the car. So we walked back and dove into her plastic bag full of snacks, including crackers, peanut butter and gummy candy (Emily's favorite food group). I was thankful she was willing to share her food and was trying to convince myself that missing one meal is a small disappointment compared to the tragedy that the folks in this neighborhood have suffered.

Just when I thought I was going to eat Swedish fish for lunch, a woman and her son drove by and rolled down their car window.

"Are y'all hungry? We've got hamburgers and hot dogs!"

Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Emily gathered up the various snacks in her lap, threw them in a bag and stepped out of the car blowing right past me towards the woman in the car who made the offer. I don't think I've ever seen her move so fast in my life.

A lot of the people in town, so touched by the kindness of strangers coming to help them out, had decided to make it their job to feed the volunteers. Some of the volunteer tents we walked by had snacks, first aid items, drinks, all free for the taking. They were even making deliveries!

Missing out on the paper sack lunch ended up being the best thing that could've happened to us, and that was one of the best hog dogs I've ever eaten.

After lunch, we continued down the street and came across a house where several people were standing in the front yard around a huge pile of gravel.

We approached them with all of our tools in hand. Jay took the lead, told the family who we were and what we were doing there, and then asked if we could help them. There was a bit of a language barrier, and therefore some confusion, I think, as to what we meant by "help," but after a brief back and forth exchange, we understood that they needed the pile of gravel loaded on to the bed of one of a man's pickup truck. So we grabbed shovels and began.

Not long after we began, I looked around and noticed that we, Emily, Jay, Kyle and Lauren and I, were the only ones shoveling the gravel. The family members were either standing around watching us, or had returned to inside the home.

I considered maybe there weren't any more shovels. But there were plenty of shovels. Jay even handed one of the shovels to one of the men who I don't think understood the subtle nudge.

Pardon my, "God helps those who help themselves," moment here, but we were offering to help them, not offering to do all of the work.

Perhaps it was again the language barrier, or perhaps they've been working so hard themselves and under so much stress that at the first sign of help, they opted to sit this one out, but regardless, we were a little turned off.

Apparently I don't do enough manual labor and my dainty hands can't survive one afternoon of hard work, because in the curve in between my index finger and my thumb, I developed two nasty blisters that stuck around for a week.

"Did they not have any gloves?" more than one person asked me when I returned to Atlanta and showed them my wounds.

"Yeah, they had gloves," I responded. "I was wearing gloves."

I think I could stand to do more projects like this. My hands could too, apparently.

On our way down the street, we came across a volunteer tent with snacks, drinks, and plenty of first aid items. I asked a woman for a couple of band-aids for my hands and she whipped out peroxide and Neosporin and band-aids, making sure my blisters were well taken care of. Nashville women have southern hospitality down.

We ended the day near where we started, sweeping and bagging more debris for the trucks to come by and pick it up. And then we gathered for some words of encouragement by the team leader and a group prayer.

I'm not sure how impactful our service in Nashville was; I never got to demo anything (much to my dismay) and the place really didn't look all that different from when we arrived. But I'd like to think that we freed some of the residents up to do more of the bigger cleanup by assisting in their yards. And hopefully our presence helped them feel less alone in their journey to recovery.

And just like it always does, giving back to this small community made me feel a lot better probably than it made them feel. Doing something nice for someone else is always a winner.

I certainly didn't need to drive to Nashville to witness devastation like this to understand how insignificant material possessions are and how quickly they can be taken away, but being reminded certainly didn't hurt. I am so blessed to have the things that I do, but they are so temporary; it's the people and experiences that truly enrich my life.

After leaving the volunteer group, Emily, Jay, Lauren and Kyle all headed back to Atlanta, and I drove to Percy Priest Lake to meet my friends Jeremiah and Lucia, who had spent the afternoon boating. I planned to make them feel badly about themselves for spending an afternoon on the lake relaxing while I broke my back doing manual labor.

Jeremiah and I worked together in 2004 for Country Music Television, driving a truck and trailer across the country to different fairs and festivals promoting the network. We traveled full time for a year, and basically lived together at Hampton Inns all over the United States. Lucia was our boss, but became our friend.

They, along with their friend Amy, had been taking advantage of another CMT friend, Anthony's boat club membership. I just started hearing about boat clubs, and I'm completely in love with the idea. Basically Anthony pays into the service monthly and then can use boats from the fleet associated with the club whenever he wants. Plans are in the works for me to live in a place where I can be a member of a boat club, or better yet, just own my own boat outright.

They arrived at the dock to pick me up and two of their friends jumped off. I hugged Lucia, Jeremiah, and Anthony and met their friend Amy, who was enjoying her first day off in several months having lead the volunteer effort for flooding recovery for Hands on Nashville.

"You've been volunteering all day?," Amy asked me.

"Yes!," I responded smiling, feeling really great about the day.

"And now you're here? In resort wear?," she asked me.

I had to laugh, because her surprise was not unfounded. I started the day in Atlanta, drove to Nashville, and now was here, in a swimsuit, ready to enjoy the last few hours of daylight with some old friends. Her confusion made perfect sense.

Packing a swimsuit and being ready for summertime activities at all times is a strange, but classic Stephanie move. During the summertime I almost always travel with a beach chair and a bathing suit in my car for moments like these when I summoned to the lake, beach, pool. I just want to be ready.

We stayed out on the boat until the sun went down, catching up, and listening to some of Anthony's favorite Lady Gaga hits. Day 237 also became a day when I got to use the bathroom in a bucket aboard a boat, a truly memorable experience that Jeremiah captured on film.

After docking the boat we headed back to Lucia's to clean up and then to Edgefield Bar and Grill for some much needed food. Everyone was so tired, there wasn't a lot of conversation. We focused on our meals. That is, until Lucia got the bill and realized the waitress had rang up our orders for $8257. There was a lot discussion about that.

The free-spirit, live it up part of my personality wanted to hit the town and enjoy Nashville. Every other part of my personality and all of my body was screaming, "Nooooooooooooooooooo."

So when Jeremiah suggested we go home and make a pallet on the floor and watch movies, I said, "Yesssssssssssssssssssssssss."

So that's what we did. I think I saw less than five minutes of the movie before I drifted off, exhausted. Not exactly the rocking time in Nashville that I was expecting, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.


  1. I had fun serving with you!! Thanks for coming with us. And look...Jay got his 1st tag! :)

  2. AWWWWWWWWWWWW! I wouldn't have had it any other way either Stephy!

    I'm glad we could fall asleep together on a hard floor, without much banter about the day and in full clothing. at 9:15 pm.

    Miss you girl. Keep rockin the daily posts!

  3. Too bad you didn't have a 50% off coupon. Volunteer work is expensive.

  4. I am so jealous that you got to hang out with Lucia!

  5. hey! i got blisters from shoveling gravel too! AND i was wearing gloves!!! yeah, blisters suck! so does heat exhaustion!
    your lake time sounds like a better reward than my DQ!