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A community in recovery: Dresden beginning to rebuild after tornado outbreak

Downton Dresden, Tenn. almost three months after the December 2021 tornado outbreak
Lily Burris
Downton Dresden, Tenn. almost three months after the December 2021 tornado outbreak

Dresden, Tennessee, lies just a little more than 30 miles south of Mayfield. The town of less than 3,000 people was hit by the same highly destructive and deadly storm system that devastated the Graves County community in December.

An EF-3 tornado – part of a highly destructive and deadly storm system that tracked hundreds of miles across multiple states – tore clear across Weakley County and through Dresden’s downtown, injuring eight people on its way through middle Tennessee. Its city hall and fire departments were damaged, along with about 200 homes and 21 businesses. Two churches were destroyed in Dresden, too – the Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Dresden First United Methodist Church.

Now, nearly three months later, Dresden is continuing to work towards recovery.

“Our streets are open. People are getting back in their homes, businesses are being rebuilt,” Dresden mayor Jeff Washburn said. “It is to credit the volunteers who have been here and assisted us in the emergency response phase, first couple of days and then who have continued on after that for these two plus months in helping us to get back to work.”

Washburn remembers the Saturday after the tornado hit: the town was filled with people with chainsaws helping remove debris from the streets. Getting the streets cleared and opened took about two weeks.

Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum says support for Dresden has come from all around the area. Bynum said members of the Martin, Tennessee, business community raised money to help some of the small businesses in Dresden impacted by the tornado, even giving funds to some competitors, and county and city mayors from across the state have also reached out to offer assistance. The outpouring of aid couldn’t have come at a better time, with the disaster striking at the beginning of the holiday season.

“If you were going to pick a time, a period of time where lots of people are home for the holidays, and doing that kind of thing, it is really beneficial as far as a response because we had lots of people working through the Christmas and New Year's holiday to help us kind of get back on our feet,” Bynum said. “We've always known that Weakley County is a great place to live and work, but that was really shown throughout the last several weeks.”

One of the first steps after the initial cleanup was relocating people out of damaged homes and getting a variety of donations to those who needed it. Washburn said the donations went to people in Weakley County and the surrounding counties that were affected. The community also opened up a disaster recovery center to help organization volunteers.

Like other storm-impacted communities, Dresden is forming a long-term recovery committee to help the city move through this process. Washburn and Bynum will be ex-officio members of the committee, but it will mostly be led and filled by community members like Karen and Tommy Wilson.

The fire department in Dresden, Tenn. was damaged in the path of the December tornado outbreak.
Lily Burris
The fire department in Dresden, Tenn. was damaged in the path of the December tornado outbreak.

The pair work with Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief and they’re intimately familiar with the area. Tommy grew up in Dresden and some of the buildings that were destroyed by the tornado were life-long landmarks for him. When they came to Dresden after the tornados hit, they had a good idea of how to get started helping the community.

Tommy has been helping with the physical recovery and repair side of things in Dresden — putting shingles on houses and tearing down structures that are too damaged to repair. Karen helps manage and organize volunteers and donations — connecting volunteer carpenters with those who need roofs and helping people navigate and connect with organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We usually pull out at this time, (Tennessee Baptist) Disaster Relief does, because the disaster is over,” Tommy said. “Now we're in the recovery part of it and that's when other groups usually come in. But we're from here so we are staying for the duration.”

A big part of recovery in Dresden so far is rebuilding.

“There are also a lot of reconstruction going on, repair construction going on on houses,” Washburn said. “Then a lot of roofs replaced, a lot of different roofing companies (have) been involved in Dresden and it’s recovering that way.”

Washburn said the biggest need that still has to be addressed for the Dresden community is going to be getting housing back. There was already an affordable housing shortage before the tornado.

“We're going to demolish between 50 and 75 homes during the course of this thing and we were already a city in which there was a severe shortage of decent rental housing,” Washburn said. “Now it's absolutely non-existent practically that if you can find a piece of housing available to lease in our town at the present time, and there's a waiting list.”

Bynum said some of the families that had been staying in the destroyed rental homes stayed there for years and had relatively affordable rent.

“Now when you look at the cost of construction and the cost of materials and the cost of labor, the affordability of housing has become really challenging, especially for those that were most impacted,” Bynum said.

Washburn said the community is trying to help people facing this need. Some people have moved to different cities instead of looking for a new home in Dresden. Others are being assisted by charity and religious organizations attempting to make home repairs or provide them with equipment to make it through the weather to get to a time when their home can be repaired. Other organizations have already come in and built some homes, but rebuilding and repairing isn’t easy right now.

“It's hard to find a contractor right now to do the repair work, but the work is getting done,” Karen Wilson said. “They're out there, and they're working about as fast as they can work.”

In addition to the need for skilled workers, Tommy Wilson pointed out that the cost of materials is up and renters will be the ones to pay for that long-term with increased rent for the rebuilt homes.

In front of the Weakley County Courthouse, part of downtown Dresden, Tenn. was destroyed in the December tornado outbreak.
Lily Burris
In front of the Weakley County Courthouse, part of downtown Dresden, Tenn. was destroyed in the December tornado outbreak.

The tornado damage hit large and small homes in the Dresden community, hitting subdivisions outside of town and homes near downtown. Karen said a disaster is “no respecter of persons” as it hit all kinds of people in Dresden. Of the homes that had to be demolished due to the tornado, the Wilsons estimated that about half of them were rental homes.

There’s still a big need for volunteers in Dresden.

“We need people who can finish drywall and hang it, it wouldn't just need skilled people,” Karen said. “We need volunteers to help those skilled people, but you got to have a skilled person to be able to tell them what to do and how to do it.”

One of the best ways, the Wilsons said, people could help is by offering people cash because sometimes donated items don’t fit the real needs of a family.

Long-term recovery could take up to three years, according to what the Wilsons have heard. Tommy thinks Dresden could be in good shape in a year to a year and a half from now. Karen said the conventional wisdom is that it takes 550 days – or about 18 months – for disaster recovery.

“When a family has lost everything, and when they do get to move back into their apartment or their home or whatever, everything has to be replaced from the beds to a fork to a can opener,” Karen said.

Anticipating the needs of families as they move back into their homes in Dresden is something Karen isn’t sure the community has gotten to yet. She said that phase of recovery is going to involve a lot of people having to realize what they don’t have anymore. And Tommy said they’re starting to see a little bit of the anger people feel about the tornado outbreak, being tired and worn out by the circumstances they’re in and having other things get to them that don’t normally bother them.

“Our community and recovery center are offering counseling,” Karen said. “We have community conversation groups that will be meeting periodically, town hall meetings periodically to help people to come in and vent and talk about, well I had that happen to or I felt that too.”

As Dresden is starting to rebuild, the Wilsons said they’re hearing about businesses and people that weren’t sure they wanted to stay in the area decide to rebuild and restart in Dresden.

“That kind of speaks to the process of what people, the healing and the grieving process,” Karen said. “At first people will say ‘I'm not rebuilding, I'm not going to rebuild’ but now here we are almost three months out and (they’ll say) ‘Well yeah, I'm going to rebuild I want to stay in Dresden.’

The Wilsons said they’re also hearing people say they want the assistance and donations offered to go to someone who needs it more, that people don’t want to take away resources from people who might need it more than them.

“And yes, some people need more, some people need less,” Karen said. “But you still have a need.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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