Future is uncertain for many Waverly residents who lost everything
WAVERLY, Tenn., — The people who lost everything line up before 7 a.m. at Mama’s Table to get an order of kindness.
There isn’t much on the menu after the flood took 20 lives and so many dreams. You can get coffee or tea or just conversation and air conditioning.
Inside, you can escape the smell of mildew, which seems to be everywhere or to escape the flies which dive into endless piles of wet belongings. You can get a “Farmer’s Daughter,” which is a cheeseburger with a fried egg on top.
The little cafe – once a real estate office and a hair salon – is a respite for people, full of shock and sadness, who don’t know what they’re going to do next. It also attracts people who want to help, but don’t know exactly how to do that.
Nine days after 17 inches of rain fell causing catastrophic flooding, Mama’s Table binds the community.
Rescue workers and cops come in to sit for a spell. So do city workers, who promised to keep water and electricity running here because the town needs Mama’s Table.
“I’m hugging on everyone,” said owner and cook Stephanie Graham, 58, who is known as “Mama” even to people much older than her.
Waverly, the picturesque seat of Humphreys County, is a place where time moves slowly, neighbors lend a hand and violent crimes are rare.
Its natural beauty attracts campers, canoers and parkgoers – including travelers to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in neighboring Hurricane Mills.
The town movie theater is still operated by the family that built it in 1935.
“It’s just a beautiful place with these big rivers next to you. The life is good if it doesn’t overflow, but once you have this kind of problem, it’s a major issue,” said Murat Arik, director of the Business and Economic Research Center in the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It’s a sad fact that these poor counties, when they get hit by disaster, recovery becomes a big issue because they don’t have resources to deploy.”
Media attention on the destructive flooding, brought the town support from communities throughout the U.S. A GoFundMe account already raised $100,000 for the family of 7-month-old twins swept out of their father’s arms by raging waters as the family clung to a tree.
Federal and state officials declared the region a disaster and pledged funds to rebuild and help families.
A town in shock
Mama’s has a catchphrase on it’s menu: “There’s no plate like home.”
Jim Graham, Stephanie’s husband, moves from table to table offering smiles. He’s the kind of guy who puts his hand on your shoulder when he talks with you.
“We worry,” he said. “What are people going to do? We pray about it.”
There are stories in the air at Mama’s, of daring rescues and people lost in the flood. Questions float in the air. Will people get relief from the federal government? Should they rebuild? Where did all that water come from? What time is the funeral?
“Everybody is in shock,” said Ted Moore, executive director of Humphreys County Economic Development Council. “The water came so fast. There was a gentleman down at the Dollar General putting chips in the racks. He saw water coming in the back door and, before he could get out of the store, he was swimming.”
Sadly, a manager there didn’t make it out in time.
There’s a seemingly endless amount of work to be done to regain some normalcy. The town’s elementary and junior high schools are flattened.
There is a lot of talk about God giving people hope in the midst of such tragedy.
Even though closing time is 7 p.m., Mama’s Table stayed open sometimes past 10 p.m. last week so people could eat, talk and cry with each other.
Stephanie Graham cried so much one day thatshe caught the eye of someone very important to her. “My preacher looked at me and said, ‘You have an ugly cry,'” Graham said.
Many will have to pack up and go
Moore spent a mid-week morning setting up a small business emergency response team in a room at City Hall, as mourners passed through the front door.
He wanted to develop an entrepreneur center but now his ambitions are quelled.
At his flooded office, he managed to fish out three big checks the city relies on for operational expenses to dry at home. But most everything else, including a framed 1997 Tennessean article about Moore dressing up as a University of Tennessee Volunteers super-fan, is destroyed.
“It’s just heart-wrenching. There are a lot of stories of survival and we have to concentrate on that,” Moore said. “The mayor and city board are going to have to sit down and work on long-range planning. A lot of houses are going to have to be destroyed and I think everybody’s worn out with floods.”
Waverly’s economy and population held steady for the past decade without much growth or loss – in contrast to bordering Perry County, where the poverty rate now doubles that of Humphreys County.
It’s not a wealthy area but there are good jobs to be had at Chemours, one of the nation’s largest titanium dioxide plants. There are 1,500 chemical and wood manufacturing jobs in the county of nearly 19,000 people, Arik said.
Chemours donated $100,000 to disaster and recovery aid, and its employees helped rescue people trapped in the water, said company spokesperson Lisa Randall.
“For us, it’s been all hands on deck to help out our community members,” Randall said. “The communities we call home are where we live and put down roots, creating memories and traditions, and where we as a company can, and should, make meaningful contributions.”
Humphreys is considered a “Tier 3” county by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development – one of the state’s rural counties where leaders are investing in broadband infrastructure and job-training programs.
Now, many families will pack up and leave town.
More than 500 homes were damaged, mostly destroyed, in the historic flood. And the occupants of homes still standing may no longer have a place to work.
Small businesses like Mama’s Table make up an important piece of the economy.
Unlike the manufacturing plants, at least 29 businesses in town are destroyed, damaged or without electricity, according to Humphreys County Commissioner Marilyn Phillips.
“It was a tsunami, it happened so fast. That’s why people couldn’t get out,” Phillips said. “But think about the ripple effect, not just for the businesses. How long is it going to take to rebuild? All these people are going to be out of work for that long?”
The county has had its share of tragedy. This is the twenty-first federal disaster declaration it’s received since 1953, including plenty of floods – but none this bad.
The Regions Bank branch on Waverly Plaza since 1962 was flooded in the 2010 deluge. The business rebuilt, but it was destroyed in Saturday’s storm. So was the Waverly Cash Saver grocery store, other restaurants, a pawn shop and barber shop, among others.
At the center of Waverly’s town square, about a mile down Main Street from Mama’s Table, stands the Humphreys County Courthouse. It has a list of what you can’t bring into court on its glass double doors.
“No phones. No hats. No purses. No jackets. No weapons. No recorders.”
It burned to the ground in 1836, and again in 1878 when Waverly – originally a stagecoach stop between Nashville and Memphis – was incorporated as a city.
In 1978, a train derailed from the track that runs along the edge of town just a couple hundred yards from the courthouse. The outpouring of community help was incredible. As volunteers worked to get the storage cars back on the tracks, a propane tank exploded and killed 16 people.
The chief of police and the fire chief were both killed in the explosion.
Waverly is a town that has always endured.
The flood of 2010 ruined homes and cars. But it didn’t kill anyone.
In Waverly, having water everywhere is part of the attraction of the place. There’s Trace Creek, Blue Creek, Hall’s Creek, the Duck River, Hurricane Creek, the Buffalo River and the Tennessee River — all within a dozen miles.
There are inlets and hollows with ponds that make this place look like a country postcard.
“A lot of people swim in the creeks,” said Scott Daniel, a real estate attorney and former police officer, who also owns the Waverly Cafe.
He’s lived in Waverly all 32 years of his life and jumping in the creek has always been a fun summer thing to do. He said he never considered the water to be deadly.
This past week, as people came into his cafe, he didn’t charge them for their orders.
“The town has been through enough,” he said.
Helpers need to be patient
Beth Leeming owns Vintage Treasures, an antiques store across from the courthouse. She was an insurance adjuster during Hurricane Katrina. She knows what’s coming.
“First there’s grief,” Leeming said. “Then there’s cleanup. Then there’s economic recovery. That’s the hard part. People won’t know what to do.
“Giving blood and bringing bottled water is great. But it’s not great in the aftermath. All those donations that aren’t used will become debris. The mountains of clothes and donations became a problem in Louisiana.”
People will need new foundations for their homes, new cars, new shoes, she said. They will have medical needs, mental health needs and, six months from now, they will have needs they don’t yet see today.
“FEMA can only do so much,” Leeming said. “They’ll throw a check and a trailer at you.”
She had some advice for the civic organizations and volunteers that want to help going forward: Be patient.
“They should only say one thing to these people who have lost everything, ‘I’m here for you,'” she said.
The aid needs to be specific to each person’s situation, she said.
Louann Wright walked into Leeming’s antique store talking about the future.
Wright was Miss Humphreys County in 1960, and “The Fairest of the Fair” in 1961. She said she still has at least one of her crowns.
She is not optimistic.
“A lot of people are not going to recover,” Wright said. “People are realizing they don’t want to build on this creek again.”
Her house sits about 400 feet from the creek, and it did not suffer major damage. Wright said she is not moving.
Leeming said took a more optimistic approach.
“We’re not survivors,” she said. “We’re thrivers.”
The local economy benefits from being an hour from Nashville and Clarksville, as well as its proximity to Interstate 40. It hasn’t seen the exponential growth of other Middle Tennessee communities, though housing prices have jumped as supply remains low across the country.
That growth explosion is on the horizon, said Tennessee Chamber of Commerce CEO Bradley Jackson.
“There’s more capacity in the west to find affordable housing and land for industrial sites,” Jackson said, adding that this disaster could be a growth catalyst. “The major tornadoes in East Nashville spurred quite a bit of development because people had opportunities to make investments in homes and businesses. There was a mini-boom there.”
Determined to get through this
Gene Trotter isn’t going anywhere. His son pleaded with him to move away from the creek, which runs past the end of his street.
Trotter said no.
He coached Waverly High to a girls state basketball championship in 1968. He had plenty of coaching offers over the years that would have made him more money. But he turned them all down because he didn’t want to move away.
“I love Waverly, Tennessee,” he said.
Trotter spent this week clearing out mattresses, books, clothes and other debris from the inside of his house on Meridale Street. Like his neighbors, he stacked the soggy ruins on his lawn. Trotter sweat in the afternoon heat, swatting away flies.
He and his wife Jo have started each day since the flood the same way.
“With a hug and a prayer,” he said. “We’ve got each other and that’s everything.”
Trotter lost three cars in the flood. They sit on his lawn and drive way spray-painted with orange circles with lines through them to signal they are inoperable.
Monday, a woman showed up unannounced on their lawn and handed Trotter the keys to her car. She told them to keep the car as long as they needed it.
“I cried my eyes out,” Jo Trotter said.
Trotter said a group from an Amish community in Kentucky volunteered to do demolition in their house. He will happily let them. The whole place needs to be rebuilt.
“We can’t see the end of the tunnel yet,” Trotter said. “We will recover, but I don’t know how.”
As he was talking, a woman walked up on his lawn and asked if he needed medical supplies.
“So many people came by and asked if we needed help,” Trotter said.
Daryl Mosley, a lifelong resident and executive director of the Humphreys County Chamber of Commerce, said his family is also staying put though his mother and sister were displaced in the flood.
“It’s not unusual to see kids on bikes going down the sidewalk on the way to the store for a milkshake,” Mosley said. “This is an extremely benevolent part of the world. Crime is low and sense of community is high. It feels like towns used to feel, that’s what keeps me here.”
Businesses are just starting to assess losses and prepare for rebuilding.
“Right now it’s the haves and the have-nots,” Mosley said. “There’s still businesses that don’t have water, power or any utilities. The ones that do are giving away free meals or supplies or organizing crews.”
What could make ‘Mama’ cry
At Mama’s Table, Stephanie and Jim Graham have seen the best of people this week.
A representative from the Church of Christ called and asked what kind of financial aid the cafe needed to be able to keep feeding the community.
Stephanie Graham didn’t know what to say. She considered asking for $500.
“What about $2,000 right now,” the caller said.
There was another donation to Mama’s Table from California.
Jim Graham said he was standing near the cash register when a customer pushed two hundred dollar bills into his hand.
When he told his wife, she started crying.
“This is what America is about,” Jim Graham said. “This has restored my faith in America.”
Reach Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or email@example.com or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN.
Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.