A hot meal can be hard to come by after a tornado rips through town. Especially for first responders and those directly impacted by the storm.
At Shoney’s on Interstate Drive, police, firefighters and families broke bread together this week. The Nashville-based comfort food chain offered a free buffet dinner for those in need.
Metro Nashville Police Officer Roy Sain Jr. is used to working late. He normally finishes up his shift in Central Precinct around midnight.
But as police work round the clock to help with storm cleanup, Sain is staying up all night, responding to calls. Around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, he’s grateful to plop down in a cushy booth and eat some complimentary fried chicken.
“It’s nice,” Sain says. “Especially working the long shift, it’s good to get a good meal, at least one good meal in.”
As we chat, Sain is making funny faces at a little girl sitting next to us. She smiles and says she wants to be a “police man” when she grows up.
“A police man,” Sain repeats, laughing. “Sounds good to me. I bet you’ll be a good one.”
At this Shoney’s less than a mile from the wreckage on Woodland Street, nearly every table is full well past typical dinner hours. Little kids color with crayons and munch on macaroni and cheese while their parents say grace, thankful in spite of the past few days’ chaos.
The smell of french toast and syrup wafts from the buffet bar. In the midst of uncertainty, the room is blanketed in a familiar aroma of comfort. One waitress greets everyone who walks in with a warm, “Hi, sweetie.” Another shakes her head when a customer tries to pay his bill before leaving.
“No sir,” she says. “Ain’t nothing to pay.”
Shoney’s Chief Marketing Officer Gill Duff says more than 100 first responders, volunteers and victims of the tornado came for dinner on the first night alone.
“We’ve seen everything from folks whose home is no longer there to folks who have no power and are going on, you know, the second and third day of no power,” Duff says. “And it doesn’t matter to us, in terms of who can come by and be a part of that. If you need a place to come by and get a good, warm meal and a place to stay for a little bit, we’re here to support you.”
Firefighter Tony Murrell says he’s in awe of all of the people who have offered to help out since the tornado hit early Tuesday morning. He says their desire to help is “contagious.”
“The response from the people of Nashville coming together, it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable,” Murrell says. “It really shows what we can do as a whole, as one.”
He was home alone in East Nashville when he woke up to the sound of golfball-sized chunks of hail hitting his house. But Murrell didn’t realize just how bad the storm had been until he woke up for his shift a few hours later.
“You just kind of wake up and, it’s just a shock, really,” he says.
Murrell has witnessed a lot of heartache while helping out with the cleanup in East Nashville over the past few days. He’s trying to stay focused on one task at a time.
“Your human nature is to give. So, you want to do as much as possible,” Murrell says. “You might start out doing one thing and end up doing another, but you’re just trying to help and trying to do anything that you can as possible.”
Since 6 a.m., Murrell and his fellow firefighters have been handing out water, cutting down trees, distributing food and clothing. Everyone’s picking up extra hours, he says, helping out whenever they can.
When Murrell found out there was a free dinner nearby, he says, “I was hungry and tired.”
Murrell says he also wanted to talk to diners who had been affected by the storm. Even when he’s off duty, Murrell is still in first responder mode, listening to people’s stories and offering comfort.
And the next day, Murell will be back in East Nashville, doing the same thing he’s been doing all week.
“You know, you’re very happy to help and, you know, people are really grateful and you feel good about yourself,” he says. “But, then again, afterwards, you kind of realize that, hey, you’re still a long way to go. A long way to go.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.