A tornado tore a swath through Wilson County last March 3 and its ugly hand to kill three people, and tear apart hundreds of homes and two schools.
Besides the fatalities, 23 were hurt in Wilson County, where many others were trapped in their homes.
It took a village of responders, thinkers, doers and go-getters to unite at seemingly a moment’s notice to get help to those who needed it immediately, and even now, a year later.
If you asked about those initial moments when help was needed, and then beyond into the rebuilding stages, one name is usually mentioned multiple times.
Rev. Regina Girten
Girten has been the Pastor of Outreach at Providence United Methodist for the last three years. And, she came to action in this community crisis.
She wasn’t even in Mt. Juliet when the tornado touched down, but in Central America on a mission trip.
Once home she was a catapult to actions to stabilize a city obscured from a tornado.
On the plane coming home, she and others set up a registration page for members of her church if they needed help. They also set up a volunteer page.
“I knew we needed to reach out to the first responders, but realized within the first 24 hours we could actually hinder their efforts,” said Girten. “We knew Victory Baptist Church already set up a shelter for those displaced.”
She also knew Mt. Juliet Police Department officers were in the neighborhoods and waited until the next day to go to those areas to check on church members.
Daryl Crouch, senior pastor of Green Hill Church, called to set up a volunteer portal. More than 4,000 people signed up and Mt. Juliet District 1 Commissioner Ray Justice helped coordinate a first volunteer weekend.
Initially, Girten and Justice met with about 25 community leaders to help mobilize and organize the volunteers.
“Wilson County already had a network of churches and we said if you are connected with a church, go through them to volunteer,” Girten said.
Half of the volunteers who signed up were connected with churches and assigned to jobs such as debris removal and chopping up wood. Wilson County Schools provided busses to take volunteers to and from the tornado affected sites.
“It was a beautiful, organized chaos,” Girten said. “All on a moment’s notice. One girl drove in from Ohio. It was a community-wide effort. There were also so many disaster relief organizations that came here. It was very overwhelming.”
At the end of the first day of volunteer work, Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto called Justice, who passed the phone to Girten.
“He basically said we were going to need a long-term recovery team,” said Girten. “John Grant (Executive Director of Compassionate Hands) was already working on this in Lebanon. We needed to strategize and mobilize.”
Recover Wilson was formed. It is the long-term recovery group for Wilson County. The group is comprised of community leaders from across the county who are working together to support tornado survivors.
The next weekend COVID-19 hit. Justice, Girten and Grant met with many Mt. Juliet leaders to figure out how they could merge for a county effort. The Mt. Juliet Community Center shut down its normal operations and became a full-time relief center.
Representatives from the Salvation Army and the United Methodist Committee on Relief stepped in.
“That was a relief,” Girten said. “They helped and went into the community and consulted about recovery. They walked me through with a road map and training opportunities.
MJPD helped with a second portal for community members affected by the tornado.
“We needed to know their needs as shell shock continued throughout Wilson County,” said Girten. “We needed food, hotel funds and so much more. We need to capture what they needed.”
Amber Nutton with Connect Church helped to oversee that portal. About 130 families needed long-term case management. During that phase Amy Fair, the Vice President of Donor Services at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, offered assistance. She is now the Communications Team Leader.
Currently the Tornado Recover Connection, in partnership with the Metro Nashville government and Recover Wilson County are coordinating efforts to address recovery needs. Girten said the organization is currently overseeing the construction of more than 10 homes in the area to replace those affected by the tornado.
“Truly, through a disaster, a lot of relationships have developed that I am grateful for,” Girten said.