DRESDEN, Tenn. — When he was elected eight years ago at age 30, Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum was the youngest county mayor in Tennessee.
“Now I’m sure I look like the oldest,” Bynum said.
He was only half-joking. The past year has taken a toll on every public official — and every resident — in this tiny West Tennessee county and town near the Kentucky line.
On Dec. 10, 2021, a severe EF-3 tornado blew Dresden apart. Bynum estimates that one of every 10 structures in this town of 3,000 was heavily damaged or destroyed.
Five blocks along the south side of Main Street across from court square were demolished. The twister skipped past the Weakley County Courthouse, but it took out City Hall, the police and fire departments, two churches, three dozen businesses and 150 homes.
Remarkably, no one died here. Everyone was on high alert after an extreme EF-4 tornado that killed dozens in western Kentucky had passed 30 miles west of town about two hours earlier.
“We were ready for the tornado, but we weren’t ready for the aftermath,” Bynum said. “There have been a lot of issues here with the recovery. We knew it would be a slow process, but we didn’t anticipate how slow.”
Federal disaster assistance, offered immediately in Kentucky, took more than a month to begin making its way to Dresden.
Meanwhile, the local economy has struggled. Unemployment has remained steady at about 4%, but so many businesses were disrupted, sale tax receipts are down substantially this year. So is water usage, which forced the city to increase water and sewer rates this year to repair and maintain the system.
Officials are still waiting to assess the tornado’s overall impact on property taxes. Neither the city nor the county raised property taxes this year, but it was an election year.
Bynum ran unopposed and won a third term in his county office in August. So did 20 other county officials. But Dresden, the county seat, bore the brunt of the storm damage and the political fallout.
On Nov. 8, Dresden voters expressed their frustrations with the recovery process by turning out in record numbers to elect a new mayor and two new aldermen.
City Mayor Jeff Washburn, who was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018, finished fourth in a crowded field of five. Former state Rep. Mark Maddox, who works for the county schools, was elected mayor, receiving nearly twice as many votes as Washburn.
“The handling of the recovery was certainly a factor in the election,” Bynum said. “But there’s no way to prepare for this kind of disaster.”
‘Disaster declaration’ delays
Bynum said he has learned that recovery from a major disaster occurs in three stages: Emergency recovery takes about five days, short-term recovery about five weeks and long-term recovery about 500 days.
The emergency recovery in Dresden went about as well as it could have. City and county crews went to work immediately after the storm. So did dozens of volunteers and nonprofit organizations.
Nearly all streets were cleared, all hazards removed, all power and clean water restored, and all survivors contacted and accounted for in the first five days.
The Red Cross helped the county set up a recovery center at a local school. There wasn’t enough temporary shelter space at the center or available housing in the county to handle all the tornado refugees.
“A lot of people were displaced outside the county,” Bynum said. “But as far as I know, no one was left homeless.”
The short-term recovery was more complicated.
The Dec. 10 storms spawned more than 30 tornadoes in six states, killing 89 people and devouring hundreds of homes, buildings and trees. It was the nation’s deadliest outbreak of December tornadoes on record.
Most of the damage was caused by two massive long-track tornadoes — the first that rampaged through eastern Arkansas, northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky and the second that ransacked Dresden.
On Dec. 11, Kentucky’s governor declared a state of emergency and asked President Joe Biden for federal assistance. He also deployed 180 national guardsmen to help western Kentucky counties.
On Dec. 12, President Biden approved Kentucky’s request and issued a Major Disaster Declaration in eight western Kentucky counties. “The scope and scale of this destruction is almost beyond belief,” Biden said when he visited Mayfield Dec. 15.
The president didn’t visit Dresden, but Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee did.
“This is about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Lee said as he looked at Dresden’s destruction on Dec. 11. “The whole town, the whole town.”
On Dec. 13, Lee declared a state of emergency in a dozen Tennessee counties, including Weakley. He asked Biden for federal assistance.
On Dec. 15, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a less helpful “emergency declaration” for nine Tennessee counties, including Weakley.
A Major Disaster Declaration provides a wide range of federal grants and loans for individuals, local governments and some businesses. The funds can be used for everything from debris removal and demolition to road, bridge, and building repairs or replacements. The federal government picks up 75%-90% of the cost. State and local governments split the rest.
The lesser federal declaration for Tennessee was for emergency protective services only. That includes costs associated with evacuation, sheltering, medical care and other emergency efforts by first responders.
Federal officials said Tennessee would need to claim at least $11.5 million in property damages to qualify for a Major Disaster Declaration. Dresden accounted for more than $6 million.
“We had our numbers for Dresden in the first few days, and it was more than half the amount the state needed,” Bynum said. “Our frustration was that it took the state so long to reach the threshold.”
Tennessee officials didn’t formally apply for a Major Disaster Declaration until the first week of January.
“They’re going through our application at FEMA at the present time, and hopefully by this time next week, we’ll have an answer as to whether or not the president is going to sign off on the disaster declaration,” Dresden Mayor Jeff Washburn told aldermen on Jan. 10.
On Jan. 14, more than a month after Dresden was devastated, the Biden administration issued a Major Disaster Declaration for 12 Tennessee counties, including Gibson, Henry, Lake, Obion and Weakley counties in West Tennessee.
So far, nearly two dozen Kentucky counties have received nearly $100 million in federal assistance. That includes about $15 million in grants and $60 million in low-interest loans for homeowners, renters, and business owners.
So far, a dozen Tennessee counties have received about $15 million in federal assistance. That includes about $6 million in grants and $8 million in low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and business owners.
“It has helped, but not nearly enough,” Bynum said.
Dresden’s long-term recovery has been even more challenging.
The delay in federal disaster relief, and mixed signals from state and federal officials, put local officials in a bind.
FEMA estimated that the tornado’s destruction generated more than 200,000 cubic yards of debris in Dresden, enough to fill 10,000 dumpsters.
At one point, a city contractor was hauling 80 truckloads of debris a day to a landfill in Milan.
Local officials spent months trying to determine who was responsible for removing (and paying for) the mountains of debris in the streets and on public and private properties.
“You have no idea how difficult it’s been to get a straight answer out of FEMA,” Washburn told aldermen in May, as reported by the Dresden Enterprise.
“So, what you’re saying is, all that we have pushed to the side of the road, the city’s going to be liable for that?” one alderman asked.
“Potentially,” Washburn said.
Aldermen also raised questions about the demolition and clearing of the block across from the courthouse. The city plans to use the entire block to build a new City Hall, police and fire station, as well as a community safe room.
In May, aldermen asked the mayor whether the city demolished three private properties on the block without the knowledge or written approval of the owners.
“It’s going to be a miracle if we’re not in litigation,” Alderman Gwin Anderson told the mayor, according to the Dresden Enterprise.
The mayor assured the board that he’d received either written or verbal permission from the owners, although they were still negotiating costs.
“How many of you received a manual that tells you how to handle a natural disaster?” the mayor asked.
“None of us,” another alderman replied.
Frustrations boiled over in June.
Five of six aldermen voted to censure the mayor and asked him to resign. They said the mayor put the city at legal and financial risk by demolishing private properties without the owners’ express permission.
They also accused the mayor of violating the city’s social media policy and the First Amendment by posting “city business” and blocking or deleting negative comments about him.
In July, the mayor sued the aldermen in Chancery Court, accusing them of violating the state’s open meetings law as well as his own First Amendment rights.
A few days later, Roy Herron, a local attorney and former state senator, negotiated a settlement and both sides agreed to move on. The aldermen removed the mayor’s censure. The mayor dropped his lawsuit.
But the political fallout continued. The tornado recovery became a local election issue.
“In the aftermath of this event, we need our elected officials to be united in the effort to restore and rebuild our town. Unfortunately, this has not been the case,” Tom McWherter, a cousin of the late Gov. Ned McWherter, wrote in a letter published by the Dresden Enterprise in August.
Tom McWherter was one of 10 candidates for three open positions on the Board of Aldermen. He finished sixth. Only one of the three incumbent aldermen was re-elected.
Dresden’s long-term recovery continues.
Only 13 Dresden residents were injured in the Dec. 10 tornado, but everyone here was impacted.
“If you weren’t hit directly by the tornado, your neighbor or a family member or a close friend was,” said Herron, a sixth-generation Weakley County resident.
Herron’s home was slightly damaged. So was his law office on court square. But his brother Ben’s home, the house they both grew up in, was heavily damaged. A dozen houses just across the street from Ben’s were destroyed.
“If Ben’s home had been on the north side of Main, or if my law office had been on the south side of Main, both would have been destroyed,” Herron said. “That’s how close everyone came to losing everything.”
Many did lose everything.
A few minutes before the tornado hit Dresden, Mary Turnbow, who lived on Main Street two blocks east of court square, got a call from her daughter, Kaitlyn, in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Kaitlyn was working in the candle factory that had been obliterated by the Kentucky tornado 90 minutes earlier. Eight workers were killed.
“She called me and said they were trapped in the factory,” Turnbow told videographer Erin Dugan. “I was going to get in the car and go up there, but I couldn’t find my keys. That’s when we got the alert that we were about to get hit.”
Turnbow and her sons went into their basement just before the house above them exploded.
“Everybody was saying over and over that they loved each other like it was going to be the last time they’d say it,” Turnbow said. “But we all made it. It’s just a process now. Just starting over.”
The process goes on
There haven’t been enough contractors to assess, demolish, clear and rebuild all the damaged properties.
“Because of COVID, the demand for contractors was at an all-time high before the tornado,” Bynum said. “This just exacerbated that problem.”
Nearly a year later, residents are still waiting for contractors to rebuild 14 homes that were destroyed and to renovate 38 that were badly damaged.
Earlier this month, city officials agreed to purchase the last remaining property needed to build a new municipal center. Cost estimates for the new building are expected before the new mayor and alderman meet for the first time Dec. 6.
Meanwhile, city and county officials are still working on managing and distributing more than $800,000 in donations.
Trees still hold hunks of metal. Yards and lots still hold piles of shredded lumber and tree limbs. But residents are seeing more cleared lots, new construction and “Dresden Strong” signs and bumper stickers all over town.
“We’re still going to be working on this recovery a year from now,” Bynum said, “but we’re going to recover, and we’re going to be a stronger and more resilient community because of this.”
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.