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A high school senior reflects on her community's resilience after a devastating flood

Debris surround a home in Waverly, Tenn., over two months after a flood ripped through the town.
William DeShazer for NPR
Debris surround a home in Waverly, Tenn., over two months after a flood ripped through the town.

When a flash flood tore through Waverly, Tennessee, 17-year-old Zoe Turner ran to safety on the top floor of her family's home. The rushing water would claim the lives of 20 of her neighbors, damage more than 700 homes and add a new challenge to what Zoe had hoped would be a more normal senior year of high school.

"I've never experienced such, like, terrible feelings," she says. "Just feeling so raw."

Despite the community's dangerous history of flooding, her family would ultimately decide to stay and rebuild in the months after the August 2021 flood. And Zoe agreed to document and share her thoughts and feelings since then with WPLN News in Nashville.

Zoe and her father Danny Turner carry a new window into their home, where they are storing materials to rebuild the property.
/ William DeShazer for NPR
/
William DeShazer for NPR
Zoe and her father Danny Turner carry a new window into their home, where they are storing materials to rebuild the property.

A new normal

In the first few weeks after the flood, there was hardly a calm moment for flood survivors to process what happened. Many scrambled to find housing arrangements. Others were focused on collecting what cash they could from friends, family, and local nonprofits and federal government agencies.

For many, the Thanksgiving holiday was a rare moment to collect their thoughts about the devastation. It stirred up difficult emotions. Families who lost loved ones in the flood had one less person at the dinner table, and those displaced from their homes looked for new places to gather.

Makeshift memorials as well as destroyed school supplies serve as a reminder of the floods that ripped through the town.
/ William DeShazer for NPR
/
William DeShazer for NPR
Makeshift memorials as well as destroyed school supplies serve as a reminder of the floods that ripped through the town.

At the same time, the mood at Waverly Central High School was settling into familiar rhythms.

"We are cramming in most of my classes, because we missed the three weeks after the flood," Zoe says. "So, that put us back quite a bit, and everyone had to take a while to get back in the swing of that."

The Turners pray at the dinner table before eating at Zoe's grandmother's house.
/ William DeShazer for NPR
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William DeShazer for NPR
The Turners pray at the dinner table before eating at Zoe's grandmother's house.

The threat of another flood

By the spring, Zoe and some neighbors were back on edge when a strong storm with heavy rain made its way through Middle Tennessee.

"I do get nervous if we've had a lot of rain, and then the water starts to come up," Zoe says into her smartphone as the rain beat down. "I know that what happened is completely out of the usual, but it still makes me nervous. A lot of people do have trauma from the flood."

A year of 'lasts'

On April 1, Zoe took part in her final high school guard competition at the 2022 Southern Color Guard Circuit Championships. It's what occupies her time, outside of National Beta Club during the school year, and church outside of school. The competition marked a moment of reality for Zoe. It was a sad reminder that her high school journey was coming to an end. Her mom and boyfriend were in the audience to support her.

Zoe, right, with the help of her boyfriend, Jackson Daniels, assemble new furniture while moving into the family apartment behind their garage.
/ William DeShazer for NPR
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William DeShazer for NPR
Zoe, right, with the help of her boyfriend, Jackson Daniels, assemble new furniture while moving into the family apartment behind their garage.

"One of the things I'm most sad about is the community I've found in guard, the friends, the funny times," Zoe says. "All those little moments that you spend together are going to come to an end."

The final weeks of school were bittersweet. On May 18, Zoe headed to high school for the last time. She took two finals with a mix of excitement and nervousness.

"All of my friends and everyone, we keep reminding each other like, 'Oh, this is our last day.' Like, last night it was like, 'This is the last time we could ask our parents to sleep over and they say, 'No,' because it's a school night and we have school the next morning," Zoe says. "I'm kind of a little bit sad to say goodbye to this part of my life."

Left: Zoe at her graduation. Right; Family and friends pack into the bleachers during the Waverly Central High School graduation ceremony at Ray Hampton Stadium.
/ William DeShazer for NPR
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William DeShazer for NPR
Left: Zoe at her graduation. Right; Family and friends pack into the bleachers during the Waverly Central High School graduation ceremony at Ray Hampton Stadium.

Beginning a new journey

On graduation day, Zoe would take on a special role among her classmates. In her royal blue cap and gown, the valedictorian took to the podium to address the community.

"Do not think about the unknown stresses of the future or the treasured memories of the past," Zoe says to her fellow classmates, "but think about the present moment we are living right now. What we've been waiting for is finally here."

The evening marked the end of a chaotic senior year that caught her entire town by surprise. But surviving the flood added new layers of meaning to Zoe's senior year, and made her more resilient.

"Now I feel a lot stronger because of what, um, I and the rest of the community went through," Zoe says. "I feel very resilient. I'm looking forward to what Waverly will become in the future and how it'll grow."

In the fall, Zoe will leave the small town of Waverly to study at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville

"The environment I'm in right now, this is, you know, who I am. I've grown up here my whole life. So many people know me from when I was, you know, a baby until now," Zoe says. "I'm kind of excited to have interactions with people where they don't already have an idea — like know me or know what I've done — just kind of going in with, like, a blank slate."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Damon Mitchell
Damon Mitchell is a journalist from Detroit, currently WPLN's Emerging Voices Fellow. Previously, he was a fellow at Detour Detroit, where he wrote about urban farming, education and inequity in Detroit's Brightmoor and Lafayette Park neighborhoods. He's also written for Next City, JSTOR Daily, Business Insider and Narratively. Damon graduated with a bachelor's degree in Public Relations from Wayne State University.