Updated: Aug 20, 2022
This is part two of two in a Vision series on Waverly, Tennessee, sharing stories from the nearby town that suffered devastating floods in August. This coverage examines the aftermath of the disaster, the help provided in the recovery effort and Waverly’s connection to the Belmont community.
After the mud-dark floodwaters receded from the streets of Waverly, Tennessee, one of the only parking lots in town not ripped to shreds by rapids sits out behind the Humphreys County Funeral Home up Main Street.
Go three blocks in any direction from the little lily-yellow funeral home at the center of town, and many of Waverly’s homes and businesses are missing from their foundations entirely. Eight-foot-deep currents tore many away on Aug. 21, and wrecking crews demolished dozens more afterward. Much of the town remains uninhabitable.
“I guess our area of Main Street was just a little higher than the lower part of Main Street, and it didn’t get to us,” said the funeral home’s owner, Steve Spann, in his Dickson drawl.
It’s just as well, since in the weeks that followed, both the funeral home and its parking lot stood full almost constantly.
Mourners gathered day after day, some in their darkest church clothes, others in blue collars, jeans and Red Wings, sweating in the late summer heat.
The Humphreys County Funeral Home held services for nine of the 20 people who lost their lives in the August flood, their names and visitation times appearing on the marquis out front one after the other, sometimes two in an afternoon.
“In a situation like that, you just handle all you can handle,” said Spann. “There are probably 70 or 80 funeral homes across the state of Tennessee and a few outside of Tennessee that are friends of mine that called and said, ‘Hey, can I bring you a casket? Can I bring you a hearse? Can I bring you a firetruck? Can I send some people to help?’”
Spann’s funeral home served just one of the many needs in Waverly after the disaster. For the rest — shelter, food, potable water, replaced prescriptions, tetanus shots, grief counseling — volunteers from the American Red Cross converged on the town from all across the country.
White cars and vans with telltale red markings patrol the ruined streets of Waverly, driving alongside the armored, fatigue-green machines that belong to the Tennessee National Guard.
Sherri McKinney, regional director of communications for the Red Cross of Tennessee, could often be found behind the wheel of one of the response cars, driving cautiously around chunks of asphalt thrown up at odd angles like moon rocks. Those roads are the more serviceable ones in town; in some places, still, the street simply up and disappears under mud and rubble.
“The repercussions,” said McKinney, “are deeper than just water.”
Dozing at the bottom of a basin in between rolling Tennessee hills, the town of Waverly once looked like something off a 25-cent postcard.
It doesn’t look like that anymore. Mountains of ruined bricks, twisted metal, splintered wood and unsalvageable family furniture line the streets, waiting to be taken away.
“It’s Katrina in a small town,” said McKinney.
“I’m thinking at least two years to even have a semblance of normalcy. These are strong people. And I will tell you, after seeing all kinds of disasters, it’s amazing what people can do when they work together.”
Many of Waverly’s residents flat-out declined help from the Red Cross, McKinney said, determined to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in a truly Tennessean fashion.
“This town is very independent,” she said. “You’re in the middle of America right here. This is a true Mayberry, USA … red, white and blue.”
Auto shop, farm depot, Exxon station, junior high. Railroad crossing, pizza place, county clerk, bank. And then there’s the churches: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, lining the streets like God’s waystations and always full on Sundays.
Daron Brown, lead pastor at the Waverly Church of the Nazarene, said flooding happens frequently in Waverly, but never as bad as that unforgettable August morning.
“We’re used to it coming up in the parking lot and getting up a few inches. We’re not used to it coming up the steps and going in the front door,” Brown said.
The entire first story of his church went underwater while he, his two sons and a few others sheltered upstairs on the second.
“There were six of us stranded in the building,” said Brown. “It was harrowing. I felt powerless … We kept watching helicopters going down with ropes and pulling people off of homes, and I felt like I wanted to be out doing something, and I couldn’t.”
The water pulled back, carrying Brown’s car away with it, he said, and leaving his church waterlogged.
But in the days and weeks that followed, the pastor and his congregation pulled together, gathered for Sunday services in the Mi-De-Ga movie theater up the street and then went straight to work.
“While we’re seeking to restore and take care of ourselves, we’ve also fed the community. We’ve gone into close to 50 homes and gutted and cleaned and done the work that needs to be done,” Brown said.
“The truth is, we don’t know another way to be the church.”
Volunteers from a church out of town assist with a salvage operation in a Waverly home, Aug. 28. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger
Back along the town’s main arteries, where the roads fared a bit better, other good Samaritans of Waverly pitched canopy tents and sparked up six-buck briquets, hauled in coolers and posted hand-drawn signs: “Free Lunch,” “Free Water,” “God Bless You.”
Scott Daniel, owner of Waverly Cafe, also answered the call to feed his town.
A lawyer by trade with offices just a few doors down from his recently purchased restaurant on North Court Square, Daniel suspended both of his businesses to help those in need after the flood. His cozy cafe became an emergency distribution center, supplies piled high against every wall.
Daniel made his way into Waverly from nearby McEwen and got the operation running before the streets had even dried.
“I used to be a police officer, so I knew some back roads. … Got us into Waverly and opened this up the same day,” he said.
Anyone who stepped through the swinging glass door of Waverly Cafe could take what they needed, including a free meal — be they Waverly resident, Red Cross volunteer or someone else wandering by.
“Even our normal customers come in; we’re still feeding ’em,” Daniel said.
Food moves through the town like lifeblood. Outside the cafe, the Red Cross’ emergency response vans move through the neighborhood looking for folks to feed.
With anyone and everyone they pass, friendly faces pop from the passenger-side windows of the vans.
“Need anything to eat?”
Duane and Fran Boyce are two volunteers on the Red Cross delivery team, doing their part to keep the town fed making runs from the organization’s bustling kitchen site at Waverly United Methodist Church. The married couple started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2015 as a way to give back during their retirement, and they made their way to Tennessee from West Virginia deliver meals to flood victims.
“You gotta be quick … You gotta know what you’re doing. Of course, we get a lot of training,” said Fran Boyce, resting in a stiff-backed chair in the church foyer between the lunch and dinner rushes.
“Here in Waverly last night, we delivered 271 dinners.”
That’s a pretty respectable total, explained her husband from the seat beside her, compared to the one or two dozen meals that some of the newer drivers got out in the same evening.
“Helpin’ people, we enjoy that,” said Duane Boyce. “It’s not about the paycheck, it’s about the, ‘Thank you, appreciate it.’ Stuff like that.”
Donations outside the Red Cross kitchen center at Waverly United Methodist Church, Aug. 28. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger
Disaster Mental Health Manager Jerry Montgomery from Indiana takes away the same meaning from her work with the Red Cross.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Montgomery said, and the small circular pin on her jangling ID lanyard attests to that, a badge commemorating her 20 years of service.
Montgomery’s first deployment was 9/11, where she comforted victims’ families at Ground Zero.
“Sometimes a deployment is so meaningful to our volunteers that it really makes a difference in their whole life,” said Montgomery. “I just felt like it was really important for those families to have someone come and visit them.”
“We come when people are at the worst time of their life.”
Cheryl Partlo, of the recovery’s Integrated Care Condolence Team, can claim one of the most delicate and specialized roles in the operation. She helped organize whatever care families needed after losing a loved one in the disaster — whether that be arrangements for a funeral service or a breakfast delivery in the morning.
And with everyone she serves in Waverly, Partlo knows, in part, what they are going through, she said.
She and her husband lost their Michigan home to a flood in 2020, and she remembers feeling overwhelmed in the aftermath.
“I’ll never forget the morning we went back to our house. We were probably there an hour, trying to decide where to start. And this sweet woman showed up, wandered through the mud, down the long driveway — and she had orange juice and bagels in her hand.”
“That was the best bagel ever,” said Partlo. “It was a big deal, the fact that someone just showed up.”
The need in Waverly, Tennessee, will not wane any time soon, and in the meantime, people like Partlo, like McKinney, like Daniel and Brown and hundreds of others, are showing up.
They’re doing the hard jobs, passing the plates, unburying the town and burying its people, getting Waverly the help it needs one day at a time.
“Sometimes it’s just the bagel. It’s just the being there,” said Partlo.
An abandoned building in Waverly, Aug. 28. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger
PHOTO: Volunteer crews with an Emergency Response Vehicle preparing to deliver food and supplies in Waverly, Aug. 25. American Red Cross / Virginia Hart
This article was written by Anna Jackson. Updated Nov. 10.