In the early morning hours of March 3, 2020, two powerful tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee. With winds up to 175 miles per hour, they destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, 70,000 people were without power, more than 300 Tennesseans were injured and 26 people lost their lives. Putnam County, located approximately 80 miles east of Nashville, received the brunt of the damage, as the EF-4 tornado left an eight-mile path of destruction and took 19 lives.
Photo from WHNT News 19
Last year I wrote a blog post about TNSAVE, more formally known as the Tennessee Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation Coalition. Modeled after similar programs like the Missouri SAVE Coalition, TNSAVE is an organization of professional engineers, architects, building inspectors and other industry professionals who voluntarily evaluate structures for safety following a disaster. TNSAVE serves the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and the State of Tennessee, with volunteers standing at the ready for when assistance is needed.
Following two days of search and rescue operations by local governments, the Putnam County Building Department and City of Cookeville Building Department needed to evaluate the structural condition of affected buildings. At noon on Thursday, March 5, TNSAVE received its first request to deploy; as volunteers we were no longer just standing at the ready, they were called to action.
TNSAVE contacted its volunteers, alerting them that Putnam County needed help. We didn’t know specifics yet—where we would meet, when we would meet, how many structures we would be evaluating, how many days we would be there, where we would stay—but the team was ready to go.
At 8 a.m. the following morning, our group of volunteers assembled at the Cookeville Building Department to determine the scope of the damage. After organizing nine response teams and assigning areas in the field, the groups headed out to evaluate damaged buildings. Using rapid visual exterior inspection training and professional knowledge, the volunteers decided if a building was safe enough to be occupied, only safe to the extent that occupants could go in and retrieve their items or if the building was structurally unsafe and people should stay away, before tagging the area with color-coded cards. Using a phone app called “Collector,” the data collected in the field was aggregated real-time to the command center at the Building Department, as well as the TEMA headquarters in Nashville.
As we worked together to survey the damage, many homes were intact with only a few shingles or facia missing. They were obvious green tags. However, one of the houses I evaluated was gone—completely destroyed—and another was mostly intact but had shifted about 15 feet off of its foundation. Those were obvious red tags. Several houses experienced significant damage, but it took considerable thought and discussion to decide whether they should receive yellow or red tags.
By the end of the day, the teams of volunteers had evaluated all of the affected structures in Putnam County—717 structures including 32 commercial buildings, 684 residences and one public facility. For the first deployment, it was a great success and a tremendous step toward being prepared for future disasters.
While the structural evaluations were done, the recovery work had only begun. With any natural disaster, the road to recovery is a long one and largely depends on the help of volunteers and aid workers. As members of the A/E/C community, TNSAVE volunteers bring a host of skills that are valuable – and I argue essential – to any relief effort. Over a month later, people are still sorting through the wreckage and navigating the rebuilding process and unfortunately, the recovery efforts have only been slowed by the Coronavirus pandemic.
While TNSAVE only played a small part in Middle Tennessee’s recovery from last month’s devastating tornadoes, I’m thankful for my Gresham Smith coworkers who donated their time to help our neighbors in need. I’m also proud to work at a firm that is dedicated to supporting the cities and towns we call home.
I’m often asked what TNSAVE looks for in volunteers. While licensed professionals are needed to inspect framing systems and identify load paths, most importantly the group looks for people who have a desire to use their skills to help others when they need it most.