A beautiful sight awaited Tennessee Senator Kerry Roberts as he finished his 100-mile bicycle ride in the town square of flood-ravaged Waverly in Humphreys County, Tenn.
People. Hundreds of people, crowding businesses that had been on the brink of closing after flooding caused by Hurricane Ida wrecked the small town in late August. A band played, kids collected Halloween candy, visitors stopped into stores and restaurants, a park ranger lectured, and four TV stations covered the event designed to kick-start the town’s economy.
“As I looked up at the square, the throng of people, the emotions changed from so much loss and destruction to seeing how resilient people are,” says Roberts, a Republican whose District 25 includes the area.
Roberts hadn’t done a so-called century ride in many years, and this one took more than six hours. His goal was to raise money and awareness for the people of Waverly and Humphreys County who lost homes, businesses and family members—there were at least 22 fatalities—to Ida. “Their customer base has dropped,” Roberts says of the businesses. “They’re on the brink. They might not open tomorrow.”
It was really hard to imagine the level of destruction. It was like a war zone. —Tennessee Senator Terry Roberts
He’s had rough times as well. A dog attack maimed one of his legs in 2015, and a brain aneurysm a year ago hospitalized him for about two weeks. And Roberts understands the impact a natural disaster can have: He owned three bike shops in Nashville but lost them after a 2010 flood in that city depressed sales.
Roberts reminds people that Waverly and Humphreys County still need help to recover.
“It was really hard to imagine the level of destruction,” says Roberts, adding that his first glimpse of the damage brought tears to his eyes. “It was like a war zone.”
We talked with the 60-year-old legislator about his Oct. 31 ride, one of many fundraising activities for the Humphreys County area that Roberts expects to raise as much as $100,000.
How did your 100-mile ride go?
It was wonderful to see people setting up booths, giving out candy. There were lines all around the square and people going in and out of the restaurants. I thought, good, this is exactly what we needed to happen.
It was a chance to talk about Humphreys County and remind people that this beautiful little county a few miles west of Nashville is hurting and needs to be helped, and there’s something a lot of us can do about that.
What was your first reaction when you saw the damage last summer?
It was a very emotional reaction. It was really hard to imagine the level of destruction. A lot of these homes along the creek got flooded. In 2010, water came up to the threshold of the door. But you didn’t have people up to their necks in water in 2010, so I was unprepared for the level of damage caused by Ida. What people described on the phone doesn’t prepare you for it.
When you get there and see it, you realize that houses have been lifted off their foundations and floated into other houses. Trucks and cars are miles down the creek. One house floated close to a mile away.
All of this stuff, you’re completely unprepared for it. But for all that heartache, the number of people who came to help was high. We saw license plates from across Tennessee and people from across the South who came to help. We saw big pickup trucks loaded with a backhoe, chains and whatever people might need.
I was blown away by the fact that people came from all over.
Bruce Goldberg is a Denver-based freelancer. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.