After Quad-State Tornado, Tennessee teachers comfort students and each other

In the wake of the Dec. 10 Quad-State Tornado, debris and haunting remnants are scattered across Dresden, Tennessee, a town about 130 miles north of Memphis. (Cathyrn Stout / Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

As Dresden children returned to class on Wednesday morning, five days after tornadoes crashed through several states, scenes of devastation filled the drive to school: Mangled homes, debris-blocked roads, twisted trees.

In the wake of the Dec. 10 tornadoes, school buildings in the town about 130 miles north of Memphis stand largely undamaged, but educators and students are suffering. There has been widespread displacement of families, which forced schools to close on Monday and Tuesday. 

So multiplication, sight words, and typical lesson plans were low on Wednesday’s agenda at the Tennessee schools most affected by the storm. Instead, the objective was to help students feel safe, secure, and loved, said local teachers as a school year already burdened by a pandemic adds another daunting disruption: rebuilding after the storm. 

And with the number of tornadoes increasing east of the Mississippi River, according to weather experts, it’s a disruption that some educators are facing more frequently.

“This has been a very difficult year,” said Debbie Moran, a special education teacher at Dresden Elementary School in the Weakley County Schools district. 

“I think everybody thought this year was going to be normal after last year, and it wasn’t as normal as we thought it was going to be,” she added Tuesday afternoon while helping a fellow teacher sort through items spared and damaged by the storm. 

The tornadoes or tornado — meteorologists are still investigating — that ripped through the West Tennessee town was a “historic long-track tornado,” according to the National Weather Service. The cell spanned about 200 miles with wind speeds over 130 miles per hour. If weather experts confirm that it was a single funnel, it will be one of the longest tornadoes on record.

The Quad-State Tornado, as the weather community has named it, affected thousands of students in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, and half-dozen or more districts announced closures in its aftermath. 

Although school was out in the Weakley County towns of Dresden and Sharon, Monday and Tuesday were not days off for Britne Mansfield, a first grade teacher at Dresden Elementary. She spent those days reaching out to her students and connecting their families with relief efforts. 

“I sent messages to my class asking what are your needs,” said Mansfield. “I want to know who’s alright, whose homes are damaged? Where are you staying? Do you need this? Do you need a shower? And any messages I got back, I just tried to direct them to where they needed to go.”

And through their parents, her students sent messages back. 

“Remi told me to tell you that she loves you. Caleb said he was worried about you,” she said on Tuesday afternoon while recalling some of the texts.

Mansfield cherished the words because she also needed support. As she prepared to return to school, she accepted the possibility that she may cry in front of her students.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them, necessarily, to see me cry because crying is a natural emotion for something like this, and I want them to know that if they need to cry it’s alright. It’s okay to get it out,” she said. “We’ve never had anything like this affect our town, and it’s a lot. It’s a lot to take in.”

As she stood in her parents’ front yard with Moran and a crew of roofers Tuesday afternoon, she recalled the terror she felt late Friday night when she huddled in her parents’ basement with seven other relatives.

“Can I be frank? I thought we were going to die. I literally thought … ,” Mansfield said, unable to finish the sentence as tears overcame her, and Moran leaned in for a hug.

As of Tuesday evening, Dresden had not recorded a single fatality, quite miraculous given the destruction, said Mayor Jeff Washburn, who is also Mansfield’s father. As of Tuesday evening, the national death toll for the Quad-State Tornado had reached 88, with more than 100 people still missing, according to reports

Yet even with no local fatalities, the aftermath has been difficult. 

“It is a traumatic experience, particularly for children, and even adults, alike, even sometimes for 67-year-old mayors of a city,” he added. 

His faith and the goodwill of neighbors have sustained him as people have donated equipment, food, and Christmas gifts for local children.

A few blocks away from where the mayor was working Tuesday afternoon, Kinetha and Kevin West had a smoker running in front of their gun shop and pulled off pieces of steaming hot chicken to serve to families without power. 

 Kinetha and Kevin West served meals to hungry families in front of their gun shop. Kevin West, who is also an industrial engineer at Tyson Foods, got his company to donate the smoker, a cooking team, and food. By Tuesday evening, they had cooked 600 pieces of chicken, 50 pounds of pot roast, 20 pounds of hot dogs, 10 packs of chicken wings, eight logs of Italian sausage, and four packs of ribs.  (Cathyrn Stout / Chalkbeat)

Kevin West, who is also an industrial engineer at Tyson Foods, got his company to donate the smoker, a cooking team, and food. By Tuesday evening, they had cooked 600 pieces of chicken, 50 pounds of pot roast, 20 pounds of hot dogs, 10 packs of chicken wings, eight logs of Italian sausage, and four packs of ribs.  

The biggest needs right now for the families they’re serving are toiletries, temporary housing, and donations to the Rotary Club fund, the Wests said. 

Freddie Brasfield, who sat outside beside the couple, added that more tarps and dumpsters are also needed. Brasfield owns a moving company, and he’s been working from dusk to curfew helping families haul away rubble. 

Despite efforts by residents and work crews, by Tuesday afternoon, much debris still remained —  haunting remnants of the devastating storm. There may be other unsettling reminders Mansfield said as she imagined the days ahead. 

“Thunder is going to be a scary thing for kids for a long time,” she said. “And we’ve got thunderstorms coming in again on Friday.”

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