Somehow spared by tornado while there, Elmhurst man raising money for ravaged Tennessee town

  • As Butch Navarro looked around last Saturday morning, they marveled that the tornado appeared to have gone around their cabin. "Everything before and after the half-mile oasis was reduced to rubble," Navarro said.

    As Butch Navarro looked around last Saturday morning, they marveled that the tornado appeared to have gone around their cabin. "Everything before and after the half-mile oasis was reduced to rubble," Navarro said. Courtesy of Butch Navarro

  • On the morning of Dec. 11, Butch Navarro and Sean McDaid ventured out in the direction the tornado had come from.

    On the morning of Dec. 11, Butch Navarro and Sean McDaid ventured out in the direction the tornado had come from. Courtesy of Butch Navarro

  • Ralph "Butch" Navarro of Elmhurst

    Ralph "Butch" Navarro of Elmhurst Courtesy of Butch Navarro

  • Sean McDaid

    Sean McDaid Courtesy of Butch Navarro

 
By Matt Baron
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 12/18/2021 2:10 PM

Ralph "Butch" Navarro and seven duck-hunting buddies huddled inside a large bathroom last week Friday, hoping to be spared a direct hit from what sounded like a freight train coming right at them.

Three minutes later they emerged unscathed into the night air, shocked by what confronted them. The tornado they heard roaring toward them had laid waste to the small, northwest Tennessee community of Samburg, where the hunters had rented a house for the weekend.

 

The tornado had missed their house, and a few others. But a quarter-mile in every direction was destruction. As Navarro, his son-in-law Sean McDaid and their friends would later learn, the massive storm had destroyed much of Samburg and Kenton, two small burgs in rural Obion County, Tennessee.

"It looked like bombs went off," said Navarro. "The houses were toothpicks. I'm shocked that more people weren't killed.

"We're still scratching our heads why and how we got so lucky, and how we were spared, and how (badly) these people were devastated."

Now, Navarro, who lives in Elmhurst and is a 66-year-old retired restaurateur and father of five, is raising money through a GoFundMe page he set up, and helping organize more relief for Samburg and nearby.

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"It's the least I could do after being spared," he said Friday. "We need to do something to help these people in those small towns."

The weather system that spawned a record 59 tornadoes through the central U.S. on Dec. 10 focused most of its fury on Kentucky, where at least 77 people died. But Tennessee was not spared.

According to local media, Samburg lost homes, their city hall, the post office and the police station. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee made it one of his stops as he toured the damaged parts of his state the Saturday afterward.

As of late Friday afternoon, Navarro's GoFundMe page had more than $3,500 in contributions. The funds are earmarked for the United Way of Obion County, Tennessee.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The destruction of dozens of homes represents only a fraction of the residents' troubles, said Michelle Creswell, executive director of the Obion County United Way.

"It's like a war zone in Samburg," said Creswell. "It's going to be a long time to be able to rebuild this community."

Combined, the population of Samburg and Kenton is about 1,500, and the county has about 32,000. It is known as a "hunter's paradise," which is what brought Navarro and the others there for a three-day duck-hunting excursion. The men came from Elmhurst, Barrington, Norwood Park and Franklin Park, and Greenbrier, Tenn

Their first day, Dec. 10, was a lackluster outing attributable mostly to the unseasonably warm weather. As the men headed back to their rental house, they heard that stormy weather would soon be rolling in.

Initially they shrugged it off. Later, the storm intensified and tornado warnings flashed across the TV. Their cellphones starting pinging more urgently.

Around 9 p.m., a police car drove up their street, with an officer on the loudspeaker urging people to "seek shelter immediately."

"That was a little bit of a wake-up call," Navarro recalled, and the men crowded into the bathroom, which was windowless.

Once the tornado passed, the hunters donated food to first-responder emergency workers.

In the days since the storm, the lack of attention on Obion County has been "very frustrating to us," Creswell said.

In addition to raising money, Navarro's relief efforts in Elmhurst include collecting needed items like water, toilet paper, diapers, soup, fruit and other ready-to-eat foods.

A truck will be outside Riley's Gathering Place, 590 S. York St. in Elmhurst, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 18, to receive supply donations before volunteers make the 450-mile trek to Samburg.

Sally Ray, director of Domestic Funds with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, applauds the initiative of Navarro and other donors like him. At the same time, she emphasizes that "cash is king" when it comes to providing relief to any area beset by disaster.

"(Cash) helps local organizations be flexible and able to address the need at that local level," Ray said. "There's a really long arc of recovery ... and there are organizations set up to quickly provide those (items) as they are needed, and more efficiently and effectively than one-off supply drives."

In this instance, the supplies being collected have a clear destination: Reelfoot Rural Ministries in Obion County, which has been a reputable steward of United Way funding for years, Creswell said.

She calls Navarro "an angel."

"He must be a very big-hearted man," she said. "Kind of makes you feel we do have good people in the world."

To support the fundraising effort, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/samburg-tn-tornado.

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