Tornadoes in Tennessee

Last Monday, we went to bed expecting some strong thunderstorms, which are common in Tennessee this time of year. There was a mild threat of tornadoes, but again that’s normal this time of year. We rarely actually have a tornado, and it’s even more rare to have tornado damage.

Our dogs are typically great. They usually go out around 8 PM and don’t make another peep until around 5:30 AM. Monday night, they woke me up again and again. They knew something was up.

When the tornado warning went off just minutes before 2 AM, I was awake. We’d had tornado warnings before. My husband usually ignores them and laughs at me for taking shelter. He’d spent time in Oklahoma as a kid, and tornadoes in Tennessee didn’t compare.

This time was different. Just a few minutes after the tornado warning, we could already hear a freight train coming. A tornado was close.

We huddled in our hallway with the dogs and the cat and our cell phones, as the noise got louder and louder and debris began pelting our home. My Great Pyrenees mix Tank is rarely bothered by storms, but he sat in my lap pressed against me shaking. I knew we were in trouble, and I prayed, “God if you take us, please let it be quick. Don’t make my babies suffer.”

It was just a matter of minutes before the noise quit, but it felt like an eternity. We tried checking the weather to see if more storms were coming, but neither of our cell phones were working very well, so we continued to wait.

The power was out, we had no idea where our weather radio was, and our cells weren’t getting internet, so we waited in the hallway until the warning expired. We tried to go back to bed, but neither of us were sleeping very well. The dogs all piled in bed with us instead of going back to their own beds.

We got up at 6 AM Tuesday to feed the dogs expecting to find the electricity back on and life back to normal. When I looked outside, I quickly decided to put some clothes on check and our fencing before letting the dogs out. Our neighborhood looked like a war zone. It was every bit as bad as it sounded.

Since the electricity was still off, I emailed by boss to let him know I couldn’t work but would be back as soon as I could, and my husband ventured to town to get us breakfast. When he came back and filled me in on what he found, we began looking for news on our phones to figure out exactly how bad things had been.

Our normal route to town was blocked with emergency vehicles. First responders were fishing through the rubble of the houses at the end of the street that weren’t there any more. Brick houses that should have easily weathered a typical Tennessee tornado.

Shortly after my husband made it back, our road was closed. We discovered that there were over 100 people missing and unbelievable amount of damage. My horses in the nearby town of Baxter were ok, but my route to the barn was demolished and closed. The gas station where I fill up wasn’t there any more. The neighborhood behind it wasn’t either. The familiar Dipsy Doodle was also gone. Even our local electric office was severely damaged.

My husband held out hope that our electricity would be restored later that day. I was more skeptical. The first press briefing warned that it could be 2-3 weeks before power and utilities were restored but that nothing would be known until they completed search and rescue.

With 3 dogs (2 over 100 lbs) and a cat, there were no hotels or shelters we could go to. We had family members who could take us in, but it would be a hardship for them and a difficult adjustment for our animals. Our house was largely undamaged, so we decided to stay put.

For the next few days, our lives became about simple things like how to keep feed and warm and clean, all of which I’ll talk about in my next post. Our street emptied quickly until only 3 houses were occupied. You could hear generators, chain saws, and helicopters 24/7. For two days, you had to show your ID to get in the neighborhood.

For our community, the next few days were about finding people and assessing our losses. 19 dead, including several children. Over 500 structures damaged or destroyed. Lost pets. Lost photos. Lost clothes and personal items. Lost landmarks. Sadness, trauma, and grief.

Our community was amazing and so supportive. We were given a generator to borrow that allowed us to keep our refrigerator going and have a couple of outlets. We had two propane heaters and were even given money for gas and propane. The community center gave us extra blankets, food, and dog food. We showered at our daughter’s in the next county, and a laundromat washed our clothes free of charge. When I had to return paperwork for my new job, the local Office Max business center helped me out free of charge.

Now that the power is back on and the roads are getting cleaned and re-opening, there’s a lot to process. First, there’s the trauma of the event and the realization that had the winds shifted ever so slightly we would have lost everything, possibly even our lives. Then, there’s an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life, love, and community. So much to unpack.

I’m sharing this with you, because the best way to overcome trauma is to talk, talk, and talk some more, and radical self-care is at the heart of any health journey. It will be months maybe years before the rebuilding is done. Please keep our community in our prayers, and be grateful for all the blessings in your life.

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