On Memorial Day weekend a massive storm front pushed across the State of Tennessee leaving destruction in its wake. Memphis received the most damage, but the storm continued across the state ultimately causing destruction in 10 counties. The Tennessee Region of the American Red Cross, after assessing the hardest-hit communities, mobilized its disaster workforce to respond. Ultimately, staff and volunteers from all eight Red Cross chapters in Tennessee were involved with the response.
Memphis experienced torrential rain, hail, straight-line winds greater than 100 mph, and reports of tornado activity. The winds were the most damaging, bringing down many of the massive hardwood trees that dot the Memphis landscape. The downed trees damaged and destroyed homes and tore out huge portions of the infrastructure supporting electrical power. The resulting power outage was the third largest in Memphis history, with 188,000 customers left without electrical power. Full restoration of power after the Memorial Day weekend storm took eleven days.
The American Red Cross of the Mid-South, already alerted to the possibility of destructive storms by the National Weather Service, immediately responded. As calls for help from people whose homes had been damaged by falling trees began to pour into the Red Cross 24-hour disaster phone lines, the Mid-South disaster team headed into the chapter offices.
“I left home about 4:30 am. A trip that normally takes me 20 minutes took over an hour, as I kept working to find a way to the office. Trees were down everywhere blocking roadways, and many of the traffic lights were not working. It was clearly going to be a rough day,” said Abigail Okui, Disaster Program and Recovery Specialist at the Mid-South Red Cross.
The disaster team quickly recognized that many people in the community were hurting due to their homes being damaged or destroyed and many more were without electrical power. Assessment of the community’s needs was a huge undertaking because the storm damage was spread over such a large area. Many housing areas would have a few homes damaged while all the others were left intact. Ultimately, the Disaster Assessment Teams determined that 322 homes in the Memphis area had received major damage or were destroyed.
Many people would need a safe and secure place to stay until their damaged home situation stabilized or until other accommodations could be found. By 1:00 pm on Sunday, The Red Cross, in coordination with the Shelby County Office of Preparedness and the Memphis Office of Emergency Management, had a shelter open at the Orange Mound Community Center. That community center was selected because it still had power in the aftermath of the storm and because of its central position in the city. The shelter remained open for 10 days and had a total of 249 overnight stays.
By the Monday after the storm, additional Red Cross volunteers arrived in Memphis from across the state to assist with the disaster response, and later, one volunteer came from West Virginia. Red Cross Emergency Vehicles arrived from Jackson and Nashville, and were used to circulate through neighborhoods hard hit by the storm to provide food, snacks, water and cleanup supplies to residents who were still without power and unable to cook as well as those busy cleaning up in the aftermath of the storm. By the end of the disaster response, two weeks after the storm, the Red Cross had provided almost 9,500 meals, 17,000 snacks, and over 7000 bulk items such as gloves, cleanup kits, and personal care comfort kits.
Almost a week after the storm, a call was received from a concerned citizen who had been working in an apartment community where elderly and disabled residents live. The caller relayed that the residents had been without electrical power and unable to cook since the storm. The apartment complex had one generator being used to power a community room kitchen. Residents had pooled their food stocks and meals were being prepared for sharing. However, they had run out of food and did not have the resources to purchase more. Immediately, the Red Cross dispatched emergency vehicles with meals and contacted Catholic Charities, which delivered approximately 50 pounds of canned fruit, vegetables, and meat.
Red Cross caseworkers met with people whose homes had been damaged by the storms to work with them on a one-on-one basis. Emergency financial assistance was provided to more than 150 families, 526 individuals, across Tennessee whose homes suffered major damage or were destroyed. Although most of the casework involved Memphis families, Red Cross workers located in other areas of the state did much of the follow-up for those cases. The bulk of the damage was focused in Memphis, but the Red Cross truly had a regional response.
At one point during the response, misinformation about availability of financial and food resources available from the Red Cross, along with the Mid-South Red Cross phone number, began to circulate on social media. The resources described in the posts were beyond the ability or authority of the Red Cross to provide, but nevertheless, the Mid-South Chapter was overwhelmed with calls. The Red Cross National Call Center stepped in to assist and received in one day more than 5,000 calls, which was a record number for them. A call center was also set up at the Knoxville, Tennessee, Red Cross offices. Overall, more than 10,000 calls were received due to the misinformation. The call centers had a herculean task of correcting the misinformation and directing callers to community and state resources to assist with their needs.
“I am so thankful for our dedicated staff and all the volunteers—those local, those from across the state, and one who came from West Virginia—who immediately stepped forward to help with this disaster response. It goes to show that our Red Cross Tennessee region is strong, resilient, and able to stand tall in adverse times,” said Jeana Bailley, Disaster Program Manager for the Mid-South Red Cross.
In Memphis, the Memorial Day weekend storm has been dubbed the Tom Lee Storm because straight-line winds toppled and destroyed a large granite obelisk in the midst of Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River. The obelisk and the park are dedicated to an African American man, Tom Lee, who in 1925 rescued single-handedly 32 passengers from the steamboat M.E. Norman that was sinking in the Mississippi River.
After repairs, the Tom Lee obelisk will once again sit in wait for the next storm to rage through Memphis and possibly move it, once more, off its foundation. The American Red Cross, on the other hand, will stand ready to respond but will not be toppled, as it staff and volunteers from across the state prepare for and respond to the needs of our communities in the aftermath of disaster.
Story Credit: Bob Wallace for the American Red Cross
The Red Cross depends on the generous support of the American public to fulfill its crucial mission. Help people affected by disasters like floods, wildfires and countless other crises by making a donation to support Red Cross Disaster Relief. These gifts enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Please make a donation today by visiting www.redcross.org calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 gift. www.redcross.org is also the place to go to learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer and submit a Volunteer Application.