The Whirlwinds that took their lives – God shall wipe away all tears

“And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice … .”  ~ John 16:22

Tennesseans were reminded, in all too stark a manner, that our lives are so fragile at best and we will never know the day or the hour of our deaths, when four tornadoes blasted through Middle Tennessee in the early morning hours of March 3rd, at speeds of between 165 and 200 miles per hour in some cases. They were taken by surprise in Putnam County and the Greater Nashville Area, even though several news channels were broadcasting continuous warnings, and when they heard the freight train roar of the tornado, many had just enough, barely enough, time to make it to some semblance of safety, but some did not and were swept up in the whirlwinds that took their lives.

Despite the constant alerts from WSMV-4 Nashville, East Nashville residents only had about six minutes to get to safety and out of the way of an EF-3 tornado’s deadly 165 mile per hour winds, according to the Tornado Warning for Davidson County, and one resident, Danielle Theophile, told WSMV, “I got the warning and in less than ten minutes you could just feel the pressure, my ears were popping [and] we all ran downstairs and just huddled together.”

Linda Leath told of her and her husband being awakened at 2:00 a.m. (CST) by a tornado alert on her phone, and a minute later the tornado tore through their Cookeville home. They managed to keep from being sucked out of their home by hanging on to heavy furniture for dear life, with Linda ending up between her bed and a cedar chest.

In the aftermath of the worse tornadoes Tennessee has witnessed in seven years, a state of emergency was declared and first responders attended to the dazed and hurt people and spent the next three days in a process that included clearing and searching through the rubble and devastation for any survivors and the dead. Initially, they transported at least 156 people to local area hospitals, with several hundred more that followed [over 300 by some counts], and in due time, they determined that twenty-five poor unfortunate souls lost their lives in this disaster.

Reported by the Washington Post on March 3rd: “Tuesday morning’s destruction stretched for 50 miles across four counties. at least 48 buildings collapsed in Nashville, according to Fire Chief William Swann. Officials said gas leaks were ‘a major concern’ in the tornado’s wake. About 250 electric poles were downed or damaged, according to Nashville Electric Service.”

As bad as that may sound and as terrible the damage was in places like East and North Nashville, Lebanon, Mt Juliet, Hermitage, and Donelson, Putnam County was at ground zero of this tragedy, and it was hit much harder. It was later determined that an EF-4 tornado with sustained winds of 200 miles per hour had hit, destroying much of the city of Cookeville in the process, with eighteen of the tornado’s victims dying in this county.

On March 6th, a day after he declared a major disaster for the area and ordered federal aid to help the recovery efforts in Davidson, Putnam and Wilson Counties, President Donald Trump flew into Nashville on Air Force One to take a look at the devastated area and meet with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and other elected officials and the victims of the area. He also surveyed a great deal of the damage from the air, in the Marine Force One helicopter. During the course of his visit to Cookeville, Pres. Trump stated, “This is real devastation like you’ll hopefully never see again.”

Due to numerous other such tragedies that he has dealt with over the past three years, as he planned his visit to Tennessee, President Trump also had previously remarked and noted: “Our hearts are full of sorrow for the lives that were lost. Those tornadoes — I’ve seen many of them during a three year period, and I’ve gotten to see the results. And they are vicious if you’re in their path.”

At one point, the President added, “You’re great people; it’s a great state.”

Many of you, my fellow Tennesseans, and others across the nation who may be reading this, may know one or many of those who were affected by this tragedy, just as I do.

A dear friend of mine, Ms Candice Temple, a Murfreesboro, TN resident, saw her family home destroyed. It was a home that had been in her family for fifty-eight years and where she lived as a child, and even in the face of this terrible event, Candice and her cousin, Ashley King Burns, managed smiles and gave thanks that family members had come out of it alive, including Candice’s mother, who lost everything. And, as they sifted through its ruins, they even took a moment to have themselves a little picnic on the stoop of their old home place, as they reminisced over all the happy times they had seen there, as children.

Exhibiting the spirit and the strength of the people of Tennessee, Candice had planted an American Flag in the roots of a large downed tree, and she exclaimed [in a recent Facebook post]: “We are cousins helping our families and we are proud Americans as well!!!! I had to put the flag up in our yard (well the roots of the tree). Our roots run deeper than any tree and no tornado can stop our LOVE or our Family.”

From all across the state and the nation, people and organizations have come to help in the cleanup and the rebuilding, as thousands of volunteers have descended on the hard hit areas, with tarps, tools and other equipment, including bobcats and bulldozers. There has also been a good number of donations coming from as far away as Canada, and it wasn’t even a matter of days before the resource center of Hands On Nashville had 20,000 volunteers to do work in each of the effected areas. The response has been outstanding, so far.

Several #NashvilleStrong operations have come to the forefront of the relief effort, and in fine fashion, Nashville’s Country Music artists have come to the rescue. Taylor Swift recently donated one million dollars to the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund, that allocates resources and support to effected communities, as well as nonprofit organizations focused on helping survivors. And showing they are indeed part of the community, the Tennessee Titans NFL professional football team matched her million dollar donation.

As Reverend Frank Gordon, pastor of North Nashville’s Fourteenth Avenue Missionary baptist Church, observes: “Most of the folks that I have talked with, black and white, all of our heads are pretty much in the same place. We have been through these things before with tornadoes and floods in Nashville. Each time that I recall it has happened, the major thrust in the community has been everybody pulling together.”

Unfortunately, twenty-five Tennessee families are now suffering the tragic loss of a loved family member who was taken from this world too soon in their minds and hearts. One such person, Larry Redmond, tells of stepping onto the porch of what once was his sister’s three bedroom home, in Putnam County, and seeing it gone, after he received a call at 3:00 a.m. from his nephew that the tornado had hit them. Redmond would later find the bodies of his sister, Cathy Selby, and her husband, Keith, approximately sixty yards away from where their home used to stand.

Speaking to Victor Oquendo of ABC News, Redmond said, “One night, one storm, killed them both.”

And the curious thing about the forces of nature, and the natural disasters associated with them, is that they don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Justine Arreche, a Bernie Sanders supporter, would later tell the Washington Post, “There’s nothing like crying in your half-bath, begging the dog to come in with you.”

If there was ever any doubt in anyone’s mind on the tenuous hold we all have on life, this one night certainly should remove it. There but for the Grace of God go I.

Tennessee and the Greater Nashville Area have faced such trials and adversity before, and there isn’t any doubt, for those who live long enough, the community will see tragedy come again, bringing a grief of such magnitude that it can only be extinguished over time through an intense personal journey, at one’s own pace. However, the efforts of everybody from all walks of life in Tennessee to help alleviate some of the hurt from this deeply sad point in time has been a thing of beauty and a testament to the special character found in the people of our state, as #NashvilleStrong has been seen everywhere of late; and those who call Tennessee and Nashville home should bear in mind this same strength sets this region apart, a strength that lies within the heart of the people who build their homes and make their lives here in Middle Tennessee.

“… God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.”  ~ Revelation 21:4

And in closing, what better expression can be made than the wonderful words delivered by Ellie Holcomb, a singer-songwriter, who spent the night huddled in her basement with her three children and a few “sweet neighbors”, until the sun rose. And she offered the following poignant words: “Our hearts are grateful for breath in our lungs, but heavy for all the lives, homes, and businesses lost. In the same breath, the sun came up today and there was a community rising up strong from a terrible storm, hands and feet sowing up with love and chainsaws and water and food. I’ve never been more scared in my life, but I’ve also never been more sure that there is comfort and hope to be broken and shared with one another in the wake of a tragedy.”