In Tennessee town, spirited cleanup follows tornado's rage

Dresden (United States) (AFP) – Jerry Rachels was "drop-jawed" at the destructive power of a tornado that barreled through Dresden, Tennessee and reduced his hardware store to a concrete slab, but he expressed equal amazement at the pace of cleanup following the powerful storm.


"It's devastated the town" in the rural northeast pocket of Tennessee, the 68-year-old said. And while there have been no known Dresden deaths, compared with dozens across the border in Kentucky, the twister has turned the community upside down.

Dresden has dodged a storm bullet for decades: famed "Tornado Alley" is multiple states away to the west, but chance caught up with the town of 3,000. "We didn't dodge it this time," Rachels said.

Six days after the tornado, Dresden's City Hall was a ravaged shell. Its roof was sheared off, the back wall blown out, office furniture and computers covered in debris -- although a crisp new American flag was fluttering from a pole outside the front door.

The nearby fire station was so badly damaged that emergency services were relocated miles (kilometers) away to another facility. Salvaged but damaged pieces of residents' lives had been placed in the parking lot: a bicycle, file cabinets and a shiny Little League trophy.

At least two of Dresden's churches were heavily damaged or destroyed, leaving congregants adrift just days before Christmas.

Cumberland Presbyterian's steeple was knocked horizontal, hanging by a thread. Inside, the sanctuary was bare, its religious artifacts spirited away for preservation.

The nearby First United Methodist Church was less fortunate. It's roof collapsed inward, burying the red-velvet pews in broken wooden beams, twisted metal, bricks and insulation.

Several of the church's stained glass windows were spared. Two colorful arched windows depicting Jesus stood intact on the north wall, despite tons of surrounding rubble from the splintered roof.

A man uses heavy machinery to remove debris from a bank in Dresden, Tennessee, on December 16, 2021
A man uses heavy machinery to remove debris from a bank in Dresden, Tennessee, on December 16, 2021 Michael Mathes AFP

The roof had been completely torn off of one of the town's banks, leaving lights and chunks of insulation dangling precariously over the debris-strewn floor.

Power crews were busy repairing electricity lines on several streets, and shrill chainsaws mixed with the rumble of dump trucks filled with debris and rolling out of town.

"Music to my ears," Rachels said, as back-hoes and other heavy equipment worked behind his flattened hardware store, saying his initial shock about the destruction has led to hope.

"It's been amazing the amount of cleanup that's taken place in a short length of time."