Travis Loller | Contributor
Nashville, TN (AP) — On a frigid Friday morning in North Nashville, Ishvicka Howell stood in her driveway and peered down the street at several utility trucks.
“When I saw those blinking lights, it was like Christmas,” she said.
Howell has been without electricity since a tornado tore through her neighborhood shortly after midnight on Tuesday.
“No power. No heat. We pioneering it,” Howell said. “Grilling it and boiling water on the grill. We’re in survival mode.”
The tornado that struck Nashville wrecked several neighborhoods as it hopped across the city, smashing in trendy Germantown and Five Points, where two people died.
But North Nashville’s historically African American neighborhoods were already suffering from decades of redlining and neglect, isolated from more affluent neighborhoods by the interstates that cut through the heart of the city. More recently, they have begun to feel the pressure of gentrification as new residents and short-term renters search out affordable areas near downtown.
And now this. The killer storm devastated whole blocks, tearing off roofs, blowing down walls, uprooting huge trees and toppling electrical poles. While many parts of North Nashville had little storm damage, most residents were still without electricity Friday. No lights. No heat. And no way to store or cook food.
Some are wondering if North Nashville can recover from this latest hit or if its African American families will be permanently displaced.
“We are worried because we know developers are going to come in,” said Cornelius A. Hill, pastor of Ephesian Primitive Baptist Church.
But Hill said he was encouraged by the outpouring of aid. His church, too, is without power. But outside in the parking lot, donations of all sorts have been pouring in to be donated to grateful residents. It was a scene repeated on nearly every corner of the storm-damaged blocks on Friday. Volunteers manned folding tables with free water, batteries, diapers, trash bags, and hot food like barbecue, hot dogs and pizza.
Meanwhile, hundreds of volunteers toting rakes and chainsaws were taking advantage of the daylight. They covered roofs with tarps, sliced away at downed and damaged trees, and piled debris at curbside for public works trucks to cart away.
“This is a historic part of Nashville. Some of these homes have been here 40 or 50 years,” said Jonathan Williamson with the community group Friends and Fam. “It’s beautiful to see everyone come out and work together to get things fixed.”
North Nashville is home to several historically Black colleges and universities. Fisk University and Meharry Medical College were largely unscathed from the storm. But Tennessee State University suffered the near total destruction of its agricultural research center. The loss is estimated at between $30 and $50 million.
College of Agriculture Dean Chandra Reddy said the school has never been funded on par with the University of Tennessee. It’s only in the past few years that the state government has started matching federal funding, and the school has been working hard to build up the program.
“This tornado is a double whammy for us. We were barely putting something up there, and then this comes and wipes it out,” said Reddy.
Reddy said he is encouraged that Gov. Bill Lee, who supports rural development, visited Tuesday morning. He is hoping the state government will come through to help the program quickly rebuild and grow.
“If we want to produce top-class research, we need good facilities and good faculty,” Reddy said. “Those don’t come cheap.”
Over at the corner of 16th Ave. North and Knowles Street, one of the most heavily damaged residential blocks, new city councilman Brandon Taylor stopped to talk with Robert Sherrill of the nonprofit Impact Youth Outreach. Taylor said city leaders already are discussing ways to help residents rebuild.
“We’re trying to build a plan to make sure the community comes out of this whole,” he said.
Sherrill grew up on 16th Ave. North and has already seen how much it has changed through gentrification. He worries that any help won’t come soon enough.
“We know there are people already knocking on doors,” he said. “If they say they’re going to put you up in the Omni for a week and give you $100,000 cash, and you’re staying in a house with no walls, you might accept that.”
Paige Jack, with the group Friends and Fam, was handing out food nearby and was more optimistic. She thinks the volunteers from other parts of the city and beyond will leave feeling more connected to North Nashville.
“It’s made people much more appreciative of our community,” she said.
The National Weather Service has said at least six tornadoes hit middle Tennessee during the series of storms that killed 24 people and caused massive damage. Eighteen were killed in Putnam County, where President Donald Trump visited on Friday to offer his condolences. Trump flew in and out of Nashville but did not stop in the city.