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A Tennessee family must decide how to move forward after devastating floods

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In 2021, climate-driven weather disasters swept across the U.S. There was a weeklong heatwave in Washington state, historic wildfires in Colorado and extreme cold in Texas. That's just to name three. Some of these events pushed entire communities out of their homes, leaving thousands trying to rebuild their lives. Damon Mitchell with member station WPLN has been following one family near Nashville who survived a flood that killed 20 people.

DAMON MITCHELL, BYLINE: Gretchen Turner is standing in the driveway of her two-story Craftsman-style home. She's gathered with about a half-dozen volunteers. They're looking back on the day of the flood.

GRETCHEN TURNER: God's hand is in all this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, it is.

G TURNER: There's no doubt. And we lost 20 lives, but there were probably 2,000 miracles that day.

MITCHELL: Gretchen is one of many longtime Waverly residents trying to figure out how to move her family forward after the flood and whether to rebuild or leave an area that she's been in since she was a kid. The rush of water made her home unlivable. The entire first floor had to be gutted. With the floors and wall stripped, it's now a construction site.

I first met Gretchen about a week after the flooding hit, when her neighbors were trying to gather what was left. She was mostly worried about one thing - another flood coming through.

G TURNER: My husband literally retired on Sunday, and we have X amount of dollars in our retirement fund to last us the rest of our lives. We can't take a significant part of that out to invest in our house without some assurance that this is not going to happen again.

MITCHELL: Like many survivors of extreme weather disasters, Gretchen is exhausted. There have been several major floods in Waverly, but the others weren't destructive enough to make people reconsider if they should stay in town.

Global warming is leading to heavier rainfalls. In August, more than 20 inches of rain fell in Waverly in 24 hours. It overflowed the local creek, wiping out entire apartment buildings and businesses. Blocks of people were displaced from their homes.

G TURNER: We're so fortunate. And, you know, there's a lot of trauma out there, and I just need to count my blessings.

MITCHELL: Five months later, several flood-damaged cars and homes look untouched, and, in some areas, piles of debris have become a normal part of the scenery. Some people have left the town with no plans to come back.

The fear that there could be another deadly flood a few years from now and more extreme weather deaths has kept Gretchen on the fence about rebuilding her century-old home. Doing that, only to have the house severely damaged by future flooding, is a risky investment. For now, she's pursuing a less high-stakes option. That is turning her flood-damaged garage into an apartment. It'll give her family a bit of stability while allowing time for them to think about the future. The garage is big enough for a few bedrooms, kitchen and a decent-sized tub. Gretchen has been getting help from volunteers to fix up the place.

G TURNER: You always have to keep thinking about the process - what has to happen before this happens, you know? But I'm just so ready to be here.

MITCHELL: So far, the Turner family has already spent thousands making their new garage home a reality while putting off the harder and more costly decisions about rebuilding their house.

G TURNER: If we could get some answers, it would give people more confidence to come back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

MITCHELL: She says while nothing is guaranteed, she wants to know that officials at all levels are at least doing something to address flooding.

G TURNER: You know, I'm still reaching out to elected officials and FEMA and TEMA and the Army Corps, trying to - you know, I know they're not going to tell me anything, but I'm still going to bug them.

MITCHELL: State and local leaders have expressed concern about future flooding, but they haven't given any guarantees that it won't happen again. And so far, Gretchen hasn't heard anything back about concrete flood mitigation plans. She says she doubts she actually will, although she does plan to continue pressing the issue.

Gretchen, her husband, Danny, and daughter, Zoe, have been staying with a friend a few miles from home for the past four months, but the space doesn't have the things the family is used to living with. There's no TV. Before the flood, Zoe thought she'd finally have a normal year in high school after dealing with COVID. Moving into a family friend's home has been all but that.

ZOE TURNER: Well, we brought our cats, and that helped me a lot because just having, like, your, I guess, feline friends around made you feel like you had to take care of them. Something about that made it easier to adjust.

MITCHELL: Zoe is a senior with a perfect GPA. After school, she's usually busy with color guard. Then, when she gets home, she's thinking about the rebuild.

Z TURNER: I guess it's difficult because I can kind of be involved. But in the end, I don't make the final call on anything. So I kind of just have to go with the flow, and that's a little bit difficult sometimes.

MITCHELL: That feeling is also shared by Zoe's older brother, Jackson. He was far away at college when the flood hit but still feels the impact of the destruction. He spoke about it with Gretchen during a holiday dinner.

JACKSON TURNER: I guess I feel a little guilty. I'm never really here. And so I felt like - well, the first thing that I wanted to do was come out and help.

G TURNER: And you did.

J TURNER: Well, not immediately.

MITCHELL: Jackson says although he has his own life outside of Waverly and can mentally check out, he knows it'll be harder to get back to normal for his family.

J TURNER: The flood is still around. It's going to be around for a long time.

G TURNER: Yep.

MITCHELL: It's unrealistic that the town will ever return to what it used to be. So the Turner family is focused on getting through the winter and spring, around the time Zoe graduates from high school.

G TURNER: And so if we can hold off on the sheetrock and the mudding and all that for the house and let the volunteers do that, maybe we'll have some beginnings of some answers.

MITCHELL: She says until those answers come, it'll be tough for the family to settle on a permanent decision to rebuild their home because of the fear that Waverly will flood again. But more immediately, the Turners are planning to move into their converted garage this week. It'll be one milestone, but they have more challenges to come.

For NPR News, I'm Damon Mitchell in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB WILDBLOOD'S "OF TRANSITION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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