Tennessee tornado: 'worst of circumstances, the best of people'

Strangers, local businesses, volunteers, and first responders are joining efforts across the state to rebuild and heal. Gov. Bill Lee sent out the National Guard in search and rescue efforts in Tennessee after Tuesday tornadoes killed 24 people. 

Larry McCormack/The Tennessean/AP
Bill Wallace reaches out to rescue workers who freed him from the rubble that had trapped him and his wife in their basement after a tornado hit Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, on March 3, 2020.

Rescuers searched through shattered Tennessee neighborhoods for buried survivors on Tuesday, less than a day after tornadoes ripped across Nashville and other parts of the state as families slept. At least 24 people were killed, some in their beds, authorities said.

The governor declared an emergency and sent the National Guard to help with search-and-rescue efforts. Gov. Bill Lee said he observed numerous examples of people coming together to help one another. "In the worst of circumstances, the best of people comes out, and that's what we're seeing," he said.

Just as the governor stopped by to tour the devastation in Putnam County, a van of longtime customers at a local eatery – who proudly stated they ate there every morning – arrived to help clear debris.

In the small town of Baxter, Mike Stephens was awakened when a big tree crashed through the roof of his house. He started cleaning up as soon as the sun rose. He cut up one tree and had help from a neighbor with a backhoe and a man who stopped by with a chainsaw.

"I've only met him once, and he just happened to show up while we're out here," Mr. Stephens said of his neighbor. "And then this other guy he just happened to stop by. I don't know him."

Wayne Stephens, a technician at a local car dealership, had Tuesday off from his job. With no damage to his home, he got in his truck with his chainsaw. He's not related to Mike Stephens and had never met him. He said he only wanted to help "as much as I can."

The twisters that struck in the hours after midnight shredded more than 140 buildings and buried people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements. "It hit so fast, a lot of folks didn't have time to take shelter," Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said. 

Twenty-one people remain unaccounted for, Putnam Sheriff Eddie Farris said, and about 40% of the rubble still needs to be searched, including a 25-acre field with marshy vegetation reaching 7 feet high.

Early findings by National Weather Service survey teams indicated that the damage in Nashville and Wilson County to the east was inflicted by a tornado of at least EF-3 intensity, the agency said.

Emergency workers sprang into action after a tornado ripped through neighborhoods in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, helping to free residents like Bill and Shirley Wallace who were trapped by rubble in their basement after their home collapsed, reported the Tennessean.  

In Putnam County, 80 miles east of Nashville, houses and businesses were completely flattened. One twister wrecked homes and businesses across a 10-mile stretch of Nashville that included parts of downtown.

It smashed more than three dozen buildings, including the tower and stained glass of a historic church. Another tornado damaged more than 100 structures along a 2-mile path of destruction in Putnam County, wiping some homes from their foundations and depositing the wreckage far away.

The tornado that toppled the bell tower at East End United Methodist Church in Nashville about 1 a.m. Tuesday also caused a gas leak at the parsonage next door, forcing the Rev. Judi Hoffman to evacuate to a hotel.

Returning to the churchyard Tuesday morning, Ms. Hoffman said she was inspired to see people she didn't even know helping clear debris. “They are rallying around us,” she said. “It's unbelievable.”

The pastor is already planning the next steps. Sunday's service will take place in a park next to what remains of the 113-year-old building. The church has sheltered neighbors during previous disasters, including a 1998 tornado that came through the same neighborhood, sparing East End but flattening another historic church nearby, St. Ann's Episcopal. 

As soon as news hit about the devastating tornado that ripped through Middle Tennessee, local businesses began coming up with ways they could help the people affected by the storm, reported the Tennessean. From Airbnb, U-Haul, Anderson Design Group, to Planet Fitness, many companies are offering their services and facilities free of cost. 

“Shoney’s is Nashville and Nashville is Shoney’s. When we cry, we all cry together and when we dine, we all dine together,” said Shoney's CEO David Davoudpour in a release. “Our doors are open to our guests, friends, and families who may benefit from a wonderful meal on the house." 

A New York-based, apartment-hotel brand startup is offering free temporary housing to residents impacted by the tornadoes in Nashville, Tennessee. "At this time, Domio is keeping the Nashville community in its thoughts and we want to do everything in our power to help those who have become displaced," said Nicole Mozeliak, COO of Domio.

Daybreak revealed landscapes littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines, and huge broken trees, making many city streets and rural roads impassable. Nashville residents walked around on streets and sidewalks littered with debris, in neighborhoods where missing walls and roofs left living rooms and kitchens exposed. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets, and piles of rubble.

With more than a dozen Super Tuesday polling places in Nashville's Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, some of them with long lines. Election officials in Putnam County advised voters in eight precincts with damaged polling locations to vote at the main election office in Cookeville.

Hours later, a judge ruled that some Tennessee polls must extend voting hours after four Democratic presidential candidates sued to keep the polls open, a Democratic party spokeswoman said.

During Governor Lee's tour of Putnam County, homeowners dug through debris, trying to salvage any items not destroyed. One young woman held up a clean green blouse while standing on a second floor of a home that had no roof.

President Donald Trump spoke with the governor by phone and pledged federal assistance, the White House said. Mr. Trump also announced plans to visit the disaster area on Friday.

In Nashville, the twister's path was mostly north and east of the heart of downtown, sparing many of the city's biggest tourism draws – the honky tonks of Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry House, the storied Ryman Auditorium, and the convention center.

Instead the storm tore through the largely African American areas of Bordeaux and North Nashville as well as neighborhoods transformed by a recent building boom.

"We are resilient and we're going to rebuild," Nashville Mayor John Cooper said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Kristin Hall, Jonathan Mattise, and Mark Humphrey in Nashville; Adrian Sainz in Memphis; Teresa Walker and Wade Payne in Cookeville; Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky; and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report. Material from Tennessean and The New York Times was used in this report. 

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