Ana Aguilar, a server at Nashville Husk, suffered property damage from a tornado that struck the city in the weeks before COVID-19. Here's how she and her restaurant family have banded together.

By Ana Aguilar, as told to Kat Kinsman
Updated May 26, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Ana Quintana

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It’s been an interesting couple of months, for sure. I started working as a server at Husk Nashville in March of 2017, and I was about to have my third anniversary there the week after we closed for COVID-19. December 31 was my first night in the house I’d bought. My roommate Katrina also works at Husk, just a month less than me. We came up through the ranks together and we live here together. She's more of the gardener and we had all these plans to start our garden. We had a friend—who also used to serve at Husk—over that first Monday night in March. We made dinner, she left, we went to bed, and then I went looking for Katrina so we could get in the tub.

I didn't want to leave the house that night and the next morning, it was wild. I went outside and noticed that my car was not destroyed, but not operable either because the back window was shattered and just splattered all throughout the car so I couldn't really get in it. The power lines in the front were just all live and loose throughout the front yard. There were trees blocking the left side of my house so you couldn't get through the street on that side. In the backyard, there were a lot of whole panels of subfloor or something like that. Lots of debris, all kinds of just roof shingles that I didn't know were so heavy. Random neighbors' backyard benches were in my yard.

But the main damage for me was the car. The ceiling was leaking because there was roof damage, but my roof wasn't ripped off, it was just pierced in a few different areas. My roommate’s window, the outside panel was broken. The biggest, randomly most expensive damage is that my trees were broken. All the branches are basically hanging. Some of them fell and then some of them have continued to fall because I hired someone to come out and take them down. But then we had more storms last week and that damaged their equipment. It's a long process of the whole city going through things and everyone's been really understanding with each other. It's been a lot of different people checking how you're doing and telling you what the resources are.

Credit: Courtesy of Ana Quintana

But the main damage for me was the car. My house had the ceiling leaking because there was roof damage, but my roof wasn't ripped off, it was just pierced in a few different areas. My roommate’s window, the outside panel was broken. The biggest, randomly most expensive damage is that my trees were broken. All the branches are basically hanging. Some of them fell and then some of them have continued to fall. I hired someone to come out and take them down, but then we had more storms last week and that damaged their equipment. It's a long process of the whole city going through things and everyone's been really understanding with each other. It's been a lot of different people checking how you're doing and telling you what the resources are.

I guess the way tornadoes work, we couldn't have been right in the eye of it, but right next to it. Houses right next to us were completely demolished. Parts of Nashville didn't have power for weeks and I think we were out of our house for a week at least. We stayed with our boyfriends so thankfully we had somewhere to go.

I must've applied with them that week of the tornado and then it probably took maybe another week to hear back. They wanted more documentation about what my insurance deductible was, what my house payment was and stuff like that. I had decided that I did want to file a claim on my house, but then I didn't have that deductible money. As far as relief efforts, everyone was mainly offering food and help clearing debris and stuff like that. But we had those things. I just didn't know where the actual money for the deductible and the payments was going to come from. And then we were now going to have to pay our health insurance out of pocket instead of our paychecks. I sent Southern Smoke the supplemental information and then another week passed when they decided to send it to their board and approved me.

Credit: Courtesy of Ana Quintana

It worked out that I got on that before COVID hit, otherwise it would have been so much harder to get help. And when I found out that I was going to get help, it was awesome because all the stress of COVID was starting to hit. I already knew that I wasn't going to be working anymore. I was trying to go on a hike with my boyfriend and that's when I was like, "Oh my God, this is such a big relief." FEMA didn't help because I do have insurance. They were like, "You don't qualify for help." And I was like, "But the deductible..."

Insurance came through for the roof and all the small damages that are barely worth mentioning but accumulate as far as doing the repairs. But they don't cover the tree damage, which is crazy because it's thousands of dollars' worth of clearing and hauling, and it is dangerous because the branches are still continuing to fall. And they're like, "Yeah it's just part of being a homeowner." And I'm like, "Well, but I wouldn't have a broken tree without the tornado."

It's crazy how connected so many different things are that made it possible to get the aid. I think that the fact that it came from a restaurant relief source was—it just made me really proud that it exists. I had no idea that there was a chef who took something that far to be able to help people in the industry. A lot of times it can feel like there's a division between front of house and back of house.

This really made it feel like we're kind of all in the same fight and we're all part of this big team. We share this food dream and that's a luxury, but when you're in the situation where you can't have luxuries, it does bring it back to the humanity. We care for each other.

The very first person that Katrina, my roommate, texted while we were in the bathtub was our general manager Rory, because he lives a mile from us. She was checking on him and then all our other coworkers that live here within the area. Same thing for me. We were just texting pretty much coworkers and I have a couple of family members here, but those are the people you are with the most. That night, at first, we were just trying to be lighthearted about it. The next day was really hard. The next day was just sad. And I was very sad mainly because I know that no matter how much aid we get, this neighborhood's never going to be the same because so many homes were destroyed completely and so many people did have to leave and are not going to come back.

Whatever they replace it with, it's going to be gentrified at probably a much faster rate than it would have been otherwise. And then there's always construction now. It's just reminders. There's always signs on my door, “Do you need help?” It's really appreciated, but at the same time, it's kind of exhausting. There were also a lot of spectators that first week. That first week Katrina and I were unnaturally irritated at everyone, even people that were claiming to want to help, because people would sometimes come and then do nothing and leave. And it was hard because I wanted to feed my volunteers. I was fielding all these questions from people about what to do and I don't have answers.

Credit: Courtesy of Ana Quintana

I felt I should have been out there sometimes clearing debris or working myself to the bone. But then I would remember that I hadn't even called the tow truck yet for my car. I had to come inside and be like, “I need to pee and call the tow truck.” I felt bad, but it was a lot of mental exhaustion. That whole first week, and specifically that first day. It probably took 24 hours before I felt I was in my body again.

We took it pretty hard. I know Katrina was irritated about how disaster relief zones are not selfie zones. At one point I did feel like saying something because there were people in work suits walking around and basically polluting the neighborhood. There were points when I was coming home to get clothes and was having a hard time getting in and out of my street. And then I would see people who were not doing anything or helping in any way and probably just wanted to look and see if they could purchase property from people who are less fortunate.

Our power came back the following Tuesday. I had taken a lot of my things to my boyfriend's house, so I came back, trickled in over the coming days. I probably spent one more week here before the Coronavirus hit and then I quarantined. We quarantined separately. Katrina is now on a farm at the intern house for Barefoot Farmer.

Husk isn’t back open yet— they haven't decided anything. We have had communication from management and the company. They've been really good about that. They've been really good about everything during this whole process, even just that they filed unemployment for all of us. We got ahead of the game on that and they've been available to answer any questions and they gave us food from the walk-in knowing that they were going to close.

I want to highlight how much support I've gotten from Rory O'Connell, Katie Coss, and my boyfriend, Josh Cook. These are some of the leaders of Husk. Even the distribution of food in the following days after we closed. They found ways to make sure there wasn’t any waste. What we get from the farmers is precious to us. They put together a farmer’s market and a lot of our current and former staff came and helped and just supported each other. When the tornado hit, Rory's husband gave free acupuncture to tornado victims. That's been a huge part of what makes me want to return to Husk after all this is just knowing that they really did stick by us and he's checked on me biweekly, like, “Is your unemployment good? Are you good?”

Most people have dived into their kitchens during quarantine, but probably even more so for myself because I already bake and my boyfriend cooks. We were able to take on a lot of food projects like that. And I think part of it was thinking we'll do some R and D while we're closed. He cooks at Husk, but he also is really interested in Mexican food and he kind of brings a lot of things together. He tries to find interesting ways to do Southern food in new ways. I’m really spoiled with his cooking. We've just been playing around and that helps keep me sane. So does gardening. I kept thinking, when I turn 30, then I'll be like, “Let's try not to kill a plant.” but now that I have a house and I have to do this work on it, I'm going to take the trees out and use the soil.

Josh is really close to all the farmers, so we went to Sweeter Days Farm and they gave him pigs’ blood to use for the soil. I was fascinated. Normally we wouldn't have time to go together ever. I should have known these things my whole life but I didn't know because I never had time to do the field trips or talk to the farmers. Right now we've had time to think about all that stuff.

I was hearing about how gardening lowers the crime rate. That makes so much sense because you have something to care for. Right now, if I didn't go outside and plant or do something, I would be struggling more with mental health. I've noticed over the past couple of weeks that I need to be proactive about those things. I had actually just started going to 6 a.m. yoga with Josh. It’s 6 a.m. hot yoga, which I never thought in my life I would ever do. But that was one of the places affected by the tornado. They weren't destroyed, but the windows were shattered. The power was down for weeks and weeks and by the time it came back, we weren't allowed to go anymore. So that was huge for us because especially for him with his work schedule, I don't think he would fit in any sort of workout any other way.

In one way, it'll be really nice to be reset. It's easy to fall behind on the menu and then just get really scatterbrained. When I go back, I'll be really focused on what we're serving, what we have available, what we were able to create when we reopen with a different menu. But I'm a little bit nervous about what the guest interaction is going to be like. Especially if we go back at half capacity, I feel that's going to be not good. But our restaurant in particular has said that they don't want to reopen when it's allowed, they want to reopen when it's right.

I'm nervous about that, but I think that it'll be good and hopefully people will be a little more excited to be there. And people hopefully will be more appreciative of the ingredients we have and what we're doing when we reopen, 'cause that's the reason we're there.