U.S. News

Nashville tornado relief effort puts growing business city to the test

Key Points
  • The tornadoes that struck central Tennessee on Tuesday were the largest natural disaster in the area since 2010's massive flooding. 
  • More than 400 commercial structures were damaged or destroyed in Nashville.
  • Since the 2010 flooding, Nashville's population has grown 160% and the state has seen an increase of a half-million jobs.
  • Some businesses and workers impacted by the natural disaster have been provided temporary office space and employment.
Damage to the Basement East music venue near the Five Points area is seen on Thursday March 05, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Tornados hit the area early Tuesday morning.
Matt McClain | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Businesses small and large are working together toward recovery after tornadoes ripped through central Tennessee Tuesday morning, killing at least 25 people and obliterating over 140 buildings. It was the area's largest natural disaster since 2010, when massive flooding devastated thousands of homes and businesses.

More than 400 commercial structures were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes, according to the city, with 75 commercial properties destroyed and 147 properties suffering major damage.

Five Points, an up-and-coming commercial neighborhood in East Nashville, was among the areas hit hardest by the tornadoes. Many restaurants, offices and homes were completely demolished.

Hawkins Partners, an architecture firm located in Five Points, was reduced to rubble before sunrise. By 12:30 p.m., the firm had already found a new office space after 19 different people reached out to help — offering everything from furniture to milk and cookies.

Kim Hawkins, a founding principal, said that the city worked at "lightning speed" to clean up and initiate recovery. She also said three Metro Nashville department heads with whom she has had long time relationships called to check on her in the hours after the storms passed.

"While it was probably the longest and most difficult day of my life, it was also probably the most remarkable," she said. "The generosity of this community is unfathomable."

Tennessee tornadoes leave at least 19 dead and a trail of destruction
Tennessee tornadoes leave at least 19 dead and a trail of destruction

The Music City has grown a lot since the 2010 flooding, which caused more than $2 billion in private property damage and displaced 10,000 people from their homes across the state.

A January report from Nashville Downtown Partnership found that the city's downtown population soared by 160% from 2009 to 2019. The University of Tennessee reported that the state created nearly half a million jobs since 2010 — although that growth is expected to cool off in 2020. The city saw a record 15.8 million tourists and over $7 billion in tourist spending in the 2019 fiscal year, according to Nashville Business Journal.

"Just like in 2010, the businesses in Nashville are asking how they can help the community," said Chris Song, a spokesman for Nashville Mayor John Cooper. "Businesses are stepping up in a big way to help each other as the metro government works to help the entire city."

"One thing we learned during the flood is that businesses face unique challenges," said Dawn Cornelius, a spokeswoman for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. "Many disaster relief services and resources available to residences are not available to businesses."

You can have 30 to 60 people who don't have their jobs anymore. As an hourly worker, what insurance, what fund, what charity covers that? I don't know of any.
Sam Davidson
co-founder and CEO of gift retailer Batch

For smaller businesses with just a single location, the tornadoes shut down their entire operation.

Batch, a gift retailer located in the Nashville Farmers Market, took minor inventory damage up to $5,000 and closed shop for three days. Sam Davidson, the company's co-founder and CEO, said that other local companies and their employees were not so lucky.

"I think about businesses that have been closed indefinitely, and you can have 30 to 60 people who don't have their jobs anymore," Davidson said. "As an hourly worker, what insurance, what fund, what charity covers that? I don't know of any."

Many businesses have taken to crowdfunding in search of financial support. GoFundMe has compiled a list of verified fundraisers for the area, including a relief fund for service industry workers and several funds for individual businesses.

Ali Roach, a co-founder of Boombozz, a craft pizza and taphouse restaurant chain operating in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, said the company is working to provide their East Nashville employees with work while the location is shut down.

"We have been able to relocate a lot of our associates to our other Middle Tennessee locations," Roach said. "We've also been able to use our ties and connections in the community to offer them a job somewhere else."

Local craft beer maker and brewpub operator Tailgate Brewery announced via Instagram that it is offering temporary positions to food service industry workers whose workplaces are closed. A general manager said they have been contacted by over 100 people and have brought in over 30 temporary employees.

Google, Amazon pitch in

Major companies nationwide that have presences in the growing business city are also pitching in. Alphabet's Google.org, the company's philanthropy arm, donated $100,000 to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to support recovery. Amazon — which has been expanding in the city with a major logistics hub of up to 5,000 jobs — said in a statement to CNBC that it has donated more than 600,000 items to relief organizations and that employees are participating in volunteer clean-up projects.

The Nashville Predators served free pizza in its downtown stadium just hours after the tornado struck. The National Hockey League also announced along with several teams that they are contributing financially to relief efforts.

Hands on Nashville, a non-profit group leading volunteer organization, reported Thursday that more than 22,000 people have signed up to help with disaster recovery.

A disaster declaration issued by President Trump — who toured the devastated area on Friday — will open the door for federal relief funding to be funneled into the state. Mayor Cooper said that loans from the Small Business Administration will be a "critical resource for residents" operating in Middle Tennessee.

The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation said in a statement to CNBC that with minor exceptions, the city's hotels, restaurants, meeting spaces, attractions and venues are remaining open. 

"At times like these, we not only have to help our neighbors recover but also keep them working and the industry generating tax revenue for the city and state," the statement said.

Song said that while Nashville businesses have always been focused on what they can do for the community, the metro government has made changes in response planning since the 2010 floods.

"We've made some internal changes, some planning advances, that allow us to coordinate and just get responses out more quickly," he said. "We're also relying more heavily on social media to share those resources with the community."

Song also said that the Nashville Emergency Response Viewing Engine, or NERVE, is one effective source of information for the public. Developed in 2012 by the government, the tool provides a digital overview of hazard areas, road closures, shelters, and food and water distribution centers.