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There's a reason Tennessee is called the Volunteer State

It has been more than half a year since a devastating tornado ripped through the heart of Johnson County. For some the memory has begun to fade and life has returned to normal, but for many of the victims that were affected by the storm last April the nightmare is still very much a reality. Thankfully, this fact has not been lost on a number of community minded individuals and organizations like the Butler Ruritan, which recently donated over $20,000 in aid. Like the Ruritan, many have made it their goal to help their neighbors and friends.
Relief began the very night of the storm, as American Red Cross and Johnson County Emergency workers rushed to help those injured or homeless, not to mention a huge turnout of volunteers who worked in the following days and weeks to clear fallen trees, provide food and shelter, and repair storm damage. The effort was increased even further by a state and federal presence after the area was officially declared a disaster site allowing FEMA to offer their services.
Setting up in the Chamber of Commerce Park in Doe Valley, FEMA and the SBA worked to provide low interest loans to those who needed them and to fill in gaps that private insurance didn’t cover. Yet, ultimately deadlines on these forms of assistance ran out, leaving a number of people still in shock from all that had happened and with damages left unrepaired.
Aside from big problems such as damaged roofs and windows, there were many cases of more subtle issues, including warped door and window frames that were shaken and twisted in the heavy wind leaving cracks and crevices for outside air to get in. This may not be too much of a problem during the warm summer months, but with winter fast approaching they become a cause for concern.
Realizing that there would be a great need for ongoing aid to tornado victims in the county, officials such as Johnson County Mayor Larry Potter and Johnson County EMA Director Jason Blevins began to put together a group to assist and organize the relief effort. Known as the Johnson County Disaster Recovery Group (JCDRG), the organization has been busy over the past few months identifying the needs of the people in the communities affected and trying to find volunteers and collect money to assist them. Case manager Ellen Watkins, who is also Johnson County’s Red Cross Coordinator, has been going door to door, working with storm victims to see where they stand and looking at ways that the JCDRG can help.
There have been many donations that have gone to purchase building supplies ranging from doors and windows to underpinning and sheetrock. Both individuals and organizations like Mountain Electric’s Operation Pocket Change have donated to the JCDRG, but the Butler Ruritan has made the biggest contribution so far. In the weeks following the initial cleanup, Ruritan President Bill Benedict began to think about how he could gather some help.
Eventually setting up a special meeting to discuss the issue with the other members of the Butler Ruritan, the organization decided to contact representatives of their Tennessean District in the National Ruritan and were able to secure $1,000. Butler members then also set aside an additional $1,000 of their own. At the same time an application was submitted asking for a $47,500 grant from the national organization’s Operation We Care fund. Although only a portion of that request was granted, the total amount that was gathered to donate to the JCDRG came to an amazing $23,750.
A presentation was held at the Butler Ruritan on November 9th with several prominent members of the national Ruritan organization attending. National Director Gary Olinger and Tennessean District Governor Joy Smallwood presented the check to JCDRG’s Ellen Watkins, who accepted the donation alongside group president Jim Norman, vice chairman Kermit Dugger, and Secretary Rosetta Slemp. Watkins expressed her sincere gratitude for Butler’s amazing contribution and explained that the money will go solely toward helping the people of Johnson County.
After identifying a person in need, the Disaster Recovery Group buys supplies and tries to find volunteers to do the work. If no volunteers can be found then someone is hired. Because so many people have needed help, the group goes through funding quickly, making the Ruritan donation even more meaningful. Unfortunately, according to Watkins there are many more people who are in need of help but are more concerned about the welfare of others around them than they are about themselves. Commenting about the storms that hit Green County as well, Ruritan Director Olinger stated, “Throughout this disaster we have seen that East Tennesseans are a humble people,” and Watkins agreed, explaining that several of the people she spoke with would turn down help because they felt that there were people that needed it worse. Yet, now that the numbness that set in following the storm is beginning to wear off, some victims are just now coming to terms with the realities of rebuilding their lives.
April’s tornado has left a lasting scar on Johnson County. Some areas will take years before they return to normal. Loggers have been busy clearing places where whole forests were flattened, and for the families of the four confirmed storm related deaths, two directly and two after from sustained injuries that night, will never be forgotten. What took nature only minutes to destroy will have lasting consequences throughout the lives of those affected.
Yet Tennessee is known as the volunteer state for a reason, and through the efforts of those volunteers in organizations like the Butler Ruritan and the Johnson County Disaster Recovery Group, there is hope. Working through example, these individuals show that with enough care and dedication, it is possible to overcome devastation by reaching out to those in need, and that is valuable in ways that money cannot measure.