When a tornado ripped through Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, in the early hours of March 3 – its pathway over 60 miles wide in some places – people moved quickly.
“It almost went from no warning to ‘The tornado is here, get into a safe spot now,’” said Lauren Smith, director of Charis Health Center in Mt. Juliet. “You only have minutes, and it’s just chaos.”
On the same night, another tornado – similarly fast-moving and destructive – tore across part of Nashville, killing 24.
The tornado happened fast, but recovery would be longer and slower. Two Mt. Juliet residents, a married couple, had been killed. People were trapped in their houses by trees and downed power lines – if their houses weren’t damaged themselves. Three schools were destroyed.
And as the days went by and people took stock of the damage, it quickly became clear that community members weren’t prepared for the impact on health – or the expense.
It’s “difficult to realize that when your power goes down, you don’t have your insulin,” Smith said. “If you’ve just lost your home…the last thing you want to do is spend another $100 on medication you just filled.”
Doctors’ offices were damaged or without power.
Coronavirus hadn’t yet hit Wilson County, where Mt. Juliet is located; it still hasn’t hit, although Amanda Cook, a nurse practitioner at Charis, said, “we’re slowly getting surrounded by Covid as the week progresses.”
But for people displaced from their homes and without their medication, coronavirus proved a problem.
“The ERs are completely overwhelmed…it’s not the best place to get a refill on hypertension medication,” Smith said. For the first time, a number of the county’s residents were asking “‘What are the other resources? Because I’ve never had to have other resources.’”
Charis Health Center serves a primarily uninsured and low-income population. But when the tornado swept through town, they coordinated with doctors’ offices to step in for patients with chronic conditions that needed to be managed.
They passed out hygiene kits at the local Wal-Mart, using what Smith described as their “very large” mobile unit as an operating base.
“Soap, shampoo, washcloths, basic things that you need to feel human after a disaster, especially if all your things have been scattered across the neighborhood or you’ve been displaced to a shelter,” was how Cook described the supplies.
When volunteers banded together to clear debris and other damage – “naturally we get cuts and scrapes and bruises while we do manual cleanup,” Smith said – Charis’s health care providers patched them up.
And they dealt with respiratory infections – and the panic that went with them.
“We have all these people with respiratory issues thinking it’s the coronavirus, when in reality, we were just hit by a tornado; there’s a lot of things in the air,” Smith said.
Coronavirus was an ever-present fear. At precisely the moment when large groups were being discouraged, community members were banding together to clean up. Just when social distancing was being widely promoted as a way to slow Covid-19’s spread, people displaced from their homes were crowding in with friends and relatives.
People with chronic conditions were confusing their symptoms with coronavirus. Those with a flu or cold were concerned as well. Some just needed clearance before they could return to work.
Cook seemed confident that the virus would make its way into the community. “It could change today or tomorrow,” she said. “It’s just going to spread like anything would.”
But people feel called to help, Smith said. “The tone in our town is ‘All hands on deck,’” she explained. “Anytime there’s any need, anyone’s willing to come in…even if it means giving you the shirt off their back.”