‘We are the Volunteer State:’ community shines in aftermath of Cookeville tornado

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COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Putnam County, Tennessee saw the deadliest event in its modern history when a tornado ripped through Cookeville and surrounding communities Monday night.

18 lives were lost in the county. That number includes 5 children.

In the wake of what was left behind is a community that will not let a storm knock them down for long.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers began rallying at 6 a.m. Wednesday to dispatch across the community and aid in relief efforts. This included search and rescue, clean-up efforts,
and medical response teams.

“We’re focused on going house to house, making sure no one else is missing. They are really concerned about these houses that are unstable that could fall at any minute,” says
Hunter Belvin, a volunteer relief coordinator.

The tornadoes rocked the tight nit community of Cookeville, many neighborhoods now unrecognizable.

“It is unreal to believe that people were sleeping in their beds, going to bed on a normal night and they wake up and this is what it looks like now,” says Katherine Stevens, a disaster response member of Team Rubicon.

A local, Stevens says this is some of the worst damage she has ever seen.

“We’ve seen houses completely wiped off their foundation, nothing left but a concrete slab. We’ve seen debris fields where there were homes, playgrounds,” says Stevens.

The volunteer response was overwhelming for neighbors like Charles Williams, who lost everything in the storm.

“There’s people here I don’t even know. This is awesome. I’m at a loss for words for it,” says Williams.

Williams describes the moment his family knew they had to take cover when the tornado ripped through their McBroom Chapel neighborhood.

“It was tense, we kept hearing this pounding rain.”

What happened next unfolded in a matter of seconds.

“I dove into the bathroom and the roof pulled up. My son started to go up and I pulled him down, wedged him between the toilet and wall and cabinet with my legs. I pushed down on my wife and daughters,” says Williams.

Bunkered in the bathroom with his family and their dogs, Williams says his daughter found the strength to pray.

“I’ll never forget that. I kept hearing her pray. I was like, ‘We are gonna be okay, We are gonna be okay.'”

Williams says the only reason his family survived is because of that bathroom. It was the only part of the house the tornado left standing.

“God put His hand over us. Because the eye of that storm came right directly through here,” says Williams.

Across the street is neighbor Billy Leath; who says when he and his wife got the alert to take cover, the storm was already there.

“It was a lot of fear. But we didn’t have time to fear,” says Leath.

He and his wife took shelter in the hallway, escaping their destroyed house unscathed.

Leath says though he has lost his home of 14 years, and almost everything he owns, he is simply grateful to see another day.

“We just move on with what life we’ve got left. And that’s it, ma’am.”

With the resilience of this neighborhood comes remembrance for the ones who were not so lucky; and for the families who are in mourning.

“We are already like phoenixes,” says Williams. “We are rising from the rubble. But there’s a lot of people not rising. We need to remember them.”

Volunteers describe the community relief effort displayed today as a glimpse of hope when all seems lost.

“There are thousands of volunteers just coming to help their neighbors out. That’s the silver lining, is to see that we have such great people here in the Upper Cumberland willing to help each other. It’s the true meaning of Tennessee being the “Volunteer State.” We are the volunteer state,” says Stevens.

If you would like to donate to relief efforts in Putnam County and across Middle Tennessee, click this link.

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