WAVERLY, TN – AUGUST 23: A partially submerged Ford F-150 sits in Trace Creek on August 23, 2021 in Waverly, Tennessee. Heavy rains on Sunday caused flash flooding in the area, leaving at least 22 people dead and several more still missing. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Following devastating flooding that killed 20 people in Waverly, TN, in late August, volunteers from local unions are helping fill in the gaps in rebuilding efforts.
AP News reported that 17 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours on August 21, 2021, on the small town in Middle Tennessee and took out homes, roads, cell phone towers and other critical infrastructure. Although it’s been two months since the waters swept two twin infants from their father’s arms, residents are still struggling to get back on their feet and piles of debris litter the streets, according to multiple sources.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) organizes workers from around the country and has been coming to Waverly for weeks to help out. Volunteers and union members are providing the skilled labor needed to tear down houses, repair what electrical and plumbing sycan be repaired and help residents clean up. Because the AFL-CIO is a federation of 57 national and international labor unions that represent 12.5 million working people, volunteers from groups like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Ironworkers responded to calls for help.
Billy Dycus is the president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council and says he’s been visiting Waverly on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for weeks to organize volunteers. Dycus says many of the volunteers are retirees and have been stripping out drywall, removing insulation from underneath houses, taking out decking and preparing electric and plumbing inside houses for repair. Dycus says two months on from the flooding, there are houses that haven’t even been entered and assessed for damage yet.
“There’s so much work and everybody’s so busy,” Dycus says. “Our retirees have a unique skill set that comes from years of experience in the building trades. They’re able to provide things beyond the normal work force.”
Plumbers, Pipefitters and HVAC Technicians of Middle Tennessee are working arm-in-arm with the AFL-CIO, including business manager of the UA Local 572 Eric Coons. The union has had a relationship with AFL-CIO since the 1800s and has been reporting to the same volunteer command center as Dycus. They’ve also been doing a lot of debris removal, and both Dycus and Coons are in it for the long haul.
“We honestly feel like we need to be a presence there until it’s done,” Coons says. “Until we’ve seen this come to fruition and these people have gotten the help they need.”
The union members aren’t wearing t-shirts or advertising their presence because Dycus says they’re just there to help. The AFL-CIO reports that they have around 40 of their own members who live nearby and were affected; Coons says the Pipefitters group has union members in the region that also need help. As part of their efforts, the Tennessee AFL-CIO’s Disaster Relief Fund has raised and distributed funds to members. The fund was initially set up in response to the March 3, 2020 tornado that struck many areas of the state, and since then has raised $53,976.50.
Despite their work Dycus says conditions for Waverly residents are often bad. Dycus visited a resident living on an old cot in what used to be his kitchen, trying to repair his house on his own over time. Dycus says the man’s friend helped him get power back to the kitchen and he’d plugged up a TV, but other than that, it was him and his cot.
Residents say there have been many issues picking up the pieces; Janet and Paul Rice, a married couple who ran a feed store in Waverly in a building that was 100 years old, say building another store and replacing inventory will never be financially feasible because there has been no financial help for their lost business.
They say piles of debris were also sitting around town for weeks before volunteers were able to move it, but say it’s clear there’s simply so much to be done it was likely overwhelming for workers. Both say progress is now being made everyday on the debris. Dycus says this is a particular concern because debris piles from houses built before current codes and regulations may contain asbestos and other chemicals that are effectively baking in the sun.
Dycus says more effort is needed from state officials, including Gov. Bill Lee, and that if a wealthier neighborhood had been hit, recovery efforts would’ve gone faster. Previous reporting by The Washington Post covered new efforts to help prevent future flooding, like the newly-formed coalition of mayors and leaders called Flood Ready TN. But overall, residents say the response effort is cobbled together and less than cohesive. Rice says the town will never be the same.
The Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency was not available for comment.
Despite the huge workload and often overwhelming number of people who need help, the AFL-CIO and Pipefitters aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“We plan to continue to go on until we can’t do anything anymore,” Dycus says. “They’re just looking for somebody to show up and help.”
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