Kenny Finlayson fires up the grill in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church in Trenton, Ga., on Tuesday morning, flipping pieces of chicken to feed to hundreds of tornado victims and cleanup crews. Staff Photo by Mariann Martin/Chattanooga Times Free Press
TRENTON, Ga. — Kenny Finlayson has no idea how many hamburgers he has flipped in the last five days.
He just knows they’re part of the endless supply of prepared food distributed through the First Baptist Church parking lot at the edge of tornado alley.
From the hardest-hit areas in Trenton, where splintered trees and shreds of insulation dominate the landscape, it is only a short walk to food and a friendly smile. Every day, volunteers flood the church parking lot to pass out water and dish out baked beans, potatoes, hamburgers, hot dogs, cookies and cakes to the hundreds of people on cleanup crews and storm victims who line up with plates in hand.
“These are the givingest people I’ve ever saw,” Finlayson said. “I’ve been to a lot of disaster areas — Katrina and other places — but I’ve never seen this. It’s amazing.”
On Tuesday morning, despite the threat of rain moving into the area, he, family members and other volunteers fired up the grill for their sixth day of cooking.
The EF3 tornado that hit Trenton late Wednesday evening killed two men and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. Two other tornadoes hit Dade County that day.
Finlayson, who lives in the Lookout Mountain area, said he showed up Thursday morning with a chain saw, but he soon saw that food was an immediate need. He headed back home for the family’s large cooker and got permission to set up in the church parking lot.
Finlayson, his brothers and their families head up the cooking operation, dishing out thousands of meals, but he insists it has been a community effort. Food has arrived from grocery stores, restaurants, food suppliers and individuals.
On Tuesday morning, a man drove up and asked what they needed. More hamburger meat, Finlayson said. The man was soon back, lugging huge packages of red meat.
One lady, traveling from Louisiana to Maryland on Interstate 59, stopped by to help for a while. Half the time, Finlayson doesn’t even know the helpers’ names. Some people hand over hundreds of dollars, which the brothers funnel into victim funds.
“It’s been unreal,” Finlayson said. “Can’t nobody take the credit for this. Somebody’ll leave and somebody else’ll show up.”
But volunteer Anthony Goins is quick to praise the Finlayson family. After the tornado hit, Goins cut away three trees across his driveway on Sand Mountain and left to help.
He and his wife, Jessica, have traveled the roads in Trenton, Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain every day, handing out food, necessities and recovery supplies.
“A lot of people, especially elderly people, can’t get out of their homes, so we are doing what we can,” Goins said. “But these people [the Finlaysons] are the best people you’ll ever find. They don’t have much themselves, but they didn’t ask what needed to be done — they just showed up.”
Across town and a little farther from the tornado’s maelstrom, Trenton United Methodist Church serves as central station for tornado recovery. The American Red Cross has designated the church to be the central distribution point for Dade County, handling all requests for help and organizing volunteers going out into the community.
The church works as the central clearing house for donations, with victims walking into one door to get supplies — water, food, diapers — and volunteers and supplies flooding a second door. The church also has a kitchen cooking three meals a day and a free laundromat.
On Tuesday, the church coordinated with churches in DeKalb and Jackson counties to funnel supplies into hard-hit areas in Alabama that have not seen as much help.
Pastor Reece Fauscett said they have no idea how many meals they’ve cooked or how many tons of supplies have passed through their doors. The church has about 250 members, but the volunteers come from anywhere. Since Friday, as many as 300 volunteers have given time to help with recovery and relief efforts.
As Fauscett spoke, his phone rang constantly. Dalton, Ga., was sending two trucks and a van filled with supplies. A coach in Gordon County is bringing his football team after school on Friday to help with efforts.
Fauscett flipped through pages of names and phone numbers, all of them calls from carpenters, plumbers and other tradesmen who want to help rebuild homes.
“It’s wonderful, unbelievable,” Fauscett said. “We have people out there working who have damaged homes, but they are helping people with no homes. Some volunteers are here when I come in and here when I leave — and I’m putting in long days. This is a group of people who show up without being asked.”
Even in the six short days since the storm hit, the landscape in Trenton has changed for the better. Splintered trees that smashed into roofs Wednesday night now line the streets in untidy piles. Green and blue tarps cover gaping holes in the houses still standing, and pieces of plywood board up windows.
Electric wires tangled among trees and drooping over streets are stretched between newly set poles. Dade Gas, which had part of its business destroyed, has a plywood sign propped beside the road with blue spray-painted letters that read “Open.”
Dade County Emergency Management Director Alex Case said about 95 percent of the county has power again — a drastic turnaround from four days ago when 97 percent were without power. All critical infrastructure is back online, he said.
The county is working to get state and federal funds so it can hire debris contractors to clean up along the streets. Thousands more tarps were on the way from Atlanta to keep things dry from incoming rain on Tuesday.
The county administration building served as a disaster relief center, with federal and state agencies set up to register people, Case said. Moving forward, the most important thing is for everyone to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Case said.
“The community has come out above and beyond belief,” Case said. “But we have a long, hard six months of recovery ahead of us.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...