You’ve seen the devastation wreaked by tornadoes on TV all your life but you brush it off thinking it will never happen to you.
But then the unthinkable happens.
I lived most of my childhood in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas and all of my adulthood in Tennessee, so I have watched the twisters come and go on the televised news reports. But those never came too close to my neck of the woods.
A bit past 10 p.m. last March 2, my wife and I went to bed earlier than normal. She had listened to the weather report on TV and storms were forecast, but we did not appear to be in the path of potential tornadoes.
About three hours later, I was awakened by a peculiar noise. I listened intently and realized it was not coming from the traffic on Interstate 40 a quarter-mile away. I think it made me sit up in bed. The noise came closer, increasing in volume.
It sounded nothing like a train to me but more like a low-flying jet plane.
Instinctively, I hollered to my mate, “Wendy, wake up!” Sound asleep, she did not react. I then pushed her over the edge of the bed to the floor and rolled off on top of her.
Maybe 10 seconds later, the tempest creating the roar burst through the windows on the back side of our bedroom. It made a terrifying racket. I heard objects whizzing several feet above my head, later to discover most of them were shards of glass.
As I lay atop Wendy, I covered the back of her head with both hands fearing something could fall on her. She remembers a heavy weight on her calf and the pain it was causing. She thought it was me crushing her leg.
It was not me but the bed frame, as the force of the wind had tipped up the far edge of the bed pushing down our side of the bed against her leg, probably pinning it against the floor.
The bed actually served as a shield between us and all that was flying across the room.
I guess the winds lasted 60-70 seconds. The howling finally dropped a bit and after a few more seconds, it was gone. Everything was quiet.
Shaken to the core, we stood. It was pitch black in our house as well as across the neighborhood as there was no electricity.
Barefoot and wearing shorts, I took a step or two and quickly felt the splintered glass that lay on the floor. I reached down with my hand and touched my right thigh and felt something sticky. It was blood. I am not sure if I fell on a sliver of glass or if a piece blew into my leg, but it had cut a gash and missed my femoral artery by maybe half an inch.
Tiny pieces of glass and long slivers littered our kitchen, living room and hallway. The kitchen and living room were in shambles.
Tiptoeing back to the bedroom with a bit of light, we were shocked to find the wall that the head of our bed touched had been blown out on the lawn, and a dresser that weighed maybe 200 pounds had also been pushed outside as well. It lay on top of a pile of wood and bricks, all that was left of the wall.
Shining the light on our alarm clock, the time was frozen at 1:15 a.m.
Time after the tornado
Soon a hard rain began to fall. Around 3 a.m., we heard a loud crash.
We did not know it at the time but the roof over our upstairs bedroom had been blown off.
The downpour coming through the opening caused our living room and kitchen ceilings to collapse, creating an unimaginable mess as the fluffy, white insulation covered the floor and furniture and also gave off a sickly odor. The effects of the wind and water damaged most of our furniture in those areas including our first, big-screen TV which we had purchased a week earlier, a late Christmas present to each other.
Three times during the remainder of the night and early morning, firemen knocked on our door and explained they heard we had an injury and wanted to know if they could transport me to the hospital. They were very kind, but I told them it was not serious and I would drive myself later.
When daylight came, we were still running on adrenalin and had had practically no sleep. We began to assess the scene. It was overwhelming. Our subdivision sits beside Leeville Pike between Highway 109 and Hartmann Drive.
Looking out our back window to a hill across the way, we quickly spotted several villas practically razed to the ground. The houses beside us and across the street took strong hits as shingles, bricks and debris were scattered everywhere. By 8 or 9 a.m., vehicles were parked en masse along the main drive as people were coming in to help and roofers and other carpenters were handing out business cards.
Around mid-morning I drove to my doctor’s office to have nine or 10 stitches sewn in my leg and then was sent to get a tetanus shot at a clinic on South Cumberland. Along the route poles and wires were strewn everywhere, blocking many roads. After a 30-minute effort, I gave up and drove home and took my shot at the Kroger pharmacy the next day.
Back home before lunchtime, we had numerous friends, neighbors and church family at our beck and call to help in whatever way they could. This outpouring of compassion could be seen everywhere and helped keep spirits from sagging. Over the next week or so, church groups and strangers brought food, bottled water, plastic garbage bags and cardboard boxes.
Rebuilding and recovery
As for our personal losses, well, the objects could be replaced, and, thankfully, many of our family photographs and all our picture albums survived.
It took a couple of weeks before our insurance adjuster arrived and within two months we were prepared to demolish and then rebuild from the ground up. Providentially, a contractor familiar with our subdivision had stopped in our front yard a day or two after the tornado and offered his services. He knew the floor plan of every house around us as he had been with the developer when the subdivision was going up. Talk about a godsend.
After spending a night at our daughter’s house, we found a furnished apartment within three miles of our home, which was ideal. Rather than trying to scramble for movers, over the next week or so, we packed our stuff helter-skelter as the ceilings were in further danger of caving in. Thank goodness we had many volunteers assisting as we moved our belongings and furniture into storage units, friends’ garages and our daughter’s house. I couldn’t count how many dozens of boxes I lifted and unloaded over that period.
The reconstruction went as well as it could as the structure went up on the original foundation and at almost the same dimensions. We moved back at the end of October, eight months after we had been displaced, into a new house. If you had been in our house before and came in the new one, you would think it very similar; but with a lot of new rugs and furnishings.
The tornado did not leave us with any trauma as we escaped with just a scratch. Tragically, three were killed in Mt. Juliet and 19 in Cookeville as the path of that storm practically went due east along Interstate 40.
Believe it or not, while I will be more diligent than ever to pay attention to the TV weather forecasts when the tornado watches come along, the main feelings I was left with were those of gratitude and joy — that Wendy and I are still “above ground” and able to enjoy the fellowship even more strongly of family, friends and neighbors. There is no place like home.
Ken Beck is a longtime contributing freelance writer to the Wilson Post. He lives in Lebanon.