Now this: Tornado clobbers African American North Nashville

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE (AP) – On a frigid Friday morning in North Nashville, Ishvicka Howell stood in her driveway and peered down the street at several utility trucks.

Howell has been without electricity since a tornado tore through her neighbourhood 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 neighbourhoods as it hopped across the city, smashing in trendy Germantown and Five Points, where two people died.

But North Nashville’s historically African American neighbourhoods were already suffering from decades of redlining and neglect, isolated from more affluent neighbourhoods 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.

Household supplies are set up at a distribution centre next to damaged homes in Nashville, Tennessee. Residents and businesses face a huge clean-up effort after tornadoes hit the state. PHOTOS: AP
Workers repair power lines

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 on 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 pastor Cornelius A Hill.

But Hill said he was encouraged by the outpouring of aid. Outside in the parking lot, donations of all sorts have been pouring in for 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 centre. The loss is estimated at between USD30 and USD50 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 programme.

“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 Governor Bill Lee, who supports rural development, visited on Tuesday morning. He is hoping the state government will come through to help the programme 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 non-profit 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 USD100,000 cash, and you’re staying in a house with no walls, you might accept that.”