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The Day After: Resilient residents on the road to recovery after midnight tornadoes

  • Red Cross scrambles to aid storm victims
  • Palmyra families “lucky to be alive”
  • Tornado shreds Fairgrounds Pavilion
  • Massive clean-up underway across southern Montgomery County

The day after a night of storms dawned with many families still without power and emergency response teams pouring into Montgomery County to undertake the task of restoring power, removing downed trees from power lines and roadways, and setting the process of recovery in place. Weather officials estimate that four F-1 tornadoes touched down across the county, three hitting the Palmyra area. The fourth hit Clarksville. F-1s have winds ranging from 86-110 miles per hour.

No place was the pressure felt more than at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Chapter of the American Red Cross, which just two weeks ago sustained a disaster of their own when an arsonist torched the agency’s Emergency Response Vehicle [ERV] filled with disaster response equipment. Faced with the devastation of a tornado, its victims, and a horde of emergency responders to assist, Red Cross volunteers rallied, utilizing many of their own resources in the first hours after the disaster.

Emergency Services Director Cecil Stout was at the Red Cross office within minutes of the storm report, facing the challenge of no power, no computers, no working phones, and no way to easily find the supplies and equipment needed to respond. Stout found himself literally feeling his way in the dark, hand over hand, as he located a battery-operated power source and tapped into that, ultimately using a projector as the main light source.

The midnight tornado was a reality check, Stout said, noting that the absence of the ERV created some delays in responding to this crisis, just as its presence would have made the delivery of services “much easier and more efficienct.” Stout said Nashville was sending a truck to Clarksville “for two days” to assist in recovery efforts. “But this shows us just how desperately we need a fully equipped ERV.”

In the back rooms of the Red Cross, volunteers were assembling “comfort kits” for victims, pulling together first aid and other supplies, and handling the flow of victims and survivors in need of assistance.

“They can’t wait until we have a truck or get our power back on,” Stout said. “They [victims] need us now.”

Volunteer Sharon Black noted that despite the challenges, the Red Cross had served over 100 meals and provided services to three families by morning. Red Cross is now asking for volunteers with chain saws to help residents clear debris, since power company crews will clear power lines but will not cut away the hundreds of trees and limbs covering homes and yards.

As the Red Cross seeks to both replace its ERV and meet this newest demand for assistance from disaster victims, it is asking the community for help. Donations can be made to the Clarksville Chapter of the American Red Cross for either general operating funds [which includes funds for direct assistance to victims] or for the needed Emergency Response Vehicle by making a check to the agency. Checks can be mailed to the Red Cross at 585 S Riverside Drive, Clarksville TN 37040. For more information, call 645-6401.

~~ The Storm ~~

With forecasters eyeing a strong front that ran from Chicago to Texas, it was no real surprise that severe weather would eventually land in Tennessee. Throughout the day the news was full of reports from Missouri and Arkansas of killer storms. Severe thunderstorms began in this area by late day with a tornado watch issued through midnight Friday (May 2). The storm front slowed, seemed to stall at the Mississippi River and over Land Between the Lakes, before sliding into Middle Tennessee.

Once here, it began to wreak its fury, first with fiery bursts of lightning and blasts of wind, then long rumbling rolls of thunder. A few “meso cyclonic” indicators were noted, and the tornado watch was extended a half hour to 12:30 a.m. At three minutes past midnight, the sirens wailed and the storm was already here. The front itself was stuck fast, dumping more and rain before finally sliding east after 2 a.m. So much for the “storm moving at ‘xxx’ miles per hour.” It was, but then it hit the brakes. Over Clarksville.

~~ Palmyra ~~

As for the storm, it first hit on Harris Circle in Palmyra, a winding hillside road that today was littered with debris from a skyline of shredded trees and badly damaged mobile homes.

Jeremy Durkin never heard it coming. Asleep in his bed at midnight, he never heard the wind. His girlfriend, Jennifer Rewczuk did. She bolted from her bed and raced to her son’s room, throwing herself over him as the tornado struck, tumbling the mobile home from its foundation, rolling it across the road, where it came to land on its side against two trees. Jeremy was able to crawl from the trailer, but Jennifer and her two-year-old son “J” [“just “J”] were trapped. The bedroom windows were crushed against the ground; the door leading out to the hall was now the ceiling. Jeremy had to demolish the wall of the trailer to get them out. Apart from bumps, bruises and scratches, they were relatively uninjured.

“Jeremy just kicked the wall out,” Jennifer said. “But we had no warning. Nothing. It happened so fast, and it was over in a minute.”

For Jennifer, this is the second disaster in two years; in 2006 her home was completely destroyed by fire. “We lost everything in that fire,” she recalled, adding that she almost feels like an expert in disaster. That doesn’t keep her from feeling “numb,” for stepping back and look at the remnants of her home with a dazed, disbelieving stare. In the neighbor’s driveway, a few bags and boxes hold all that was recoverable from the wreckage, all that is left of their lives. Their family cat was (as of 2 p.m. Saturday) still trapped in the wreckage. Amid fears that the rest of the mobile home would collapse, it was deemed too dangerous to try and reach the animal.

Next door, Cody Lasley was stading inside what was left of his home, his blond head clearly visible where things like a wall, a ceiling, and a roof should be. Instead, the home was in sections, sliced in half by a tree trunk that cut through his bedroom. The mobile home was surrounded and all but covered by debris.

From inside, Cody simply shook his head, slowly picking through the pieces in search of something to salvage. The pickings were slim.

~~ The Fairgrounds ~~

Splinters. That just about all that’s left of the pavilion at the Clarksville Fairgrounds. At one corner, a two story chunk of storage and office space stands roofless and open to the elements, a stairway now wide open and rail-less, coming and going nowhere. The parking lot is cordoned off for utility vehicle only: phone, electric, and assorted repair and or demolition crews with cherry pickers for high wire work.

Pieces of the building have been pushed into a pile not unlike a tossed up package of children’s “pick up sticks.” Lumber littered the roadside and a good portion of the pavilion was blown across the street, pieces blended in a Cole Slaw mix with tree limbs and downed power lines. The finely shredded roofing shingles were generously laced throughout the chain link fence at both the fairgrounds and the neighboring Clarksville Jaycees.

The Kiwanis Rodeo was curtailed Friday because of the pending line of severe thunderstorms approaching the region; it was lucky break for rodeo fans who would otherwise have been caught in heavy thunderstorms and possibly the tornado itself, with potentially fatal implications. The bleachers in which fans would have been sitting sustained considerable damage, though the livestock brought in for the rodeo, huddled in pens beyond the pavilion area, were unharmed. On Saturday, in light of the destruction and lack of power, a convoy of trucks was loading up the horses and bulls, heading out to their next location.

At the duck pond, the deck designed for handicapped accessibility to the water was damaged, some of its railings ripped apart. One portable toilet sat at a 45 degree angle on the water’s edge, while another appeared to be submerged mid-lake with a dozen turtles happily sunning themselves on its roof. The ducks and geese waddled their way through debris, oblivious to the chaos all around them.

On the highway, hundreds of cars passed by with area residents wanting a peek at the damage.

A new mini mall under construction a few lots down from the fairground had most of its tin roofing twisted up pretzel-fashion, hanging from its roof line to the ground. A power pole and three transformers at Gary Matthews Motors were blown down, draping hot wires over 2008 SUVs. On Saturday, Pike Co. drilled the old post from the ground and replaced it with new transformers. One of the old transformers had split apart; when asked about the potential for PCB contamination, it was learned the new transformers use a soybean oil rather than PCBs.

~~ Hickory Ridge ~~

Driving through Hickory Ridge was a challenge, since several streets were still completely obstructed by downed trees or trees suspended in the hammock of power, cable and phone lines on Saturday.

Shaun Azlin walked along one road, working with the buzz of his leaf blower in his ear, sweeping the nozzle from side to side, blowing smaller pieces of debris from the road. Trees took out power to his home, but the gas-fired tool gave him other clean-up options for his neighborhood.

For Johnny Keykendahl, it was another story: he was watching TV, watching the storm line “move toward us.”

“I just heard a roaring sound, and as I watched the rain went from straight down to coming in sideways,” he said. “From somewhere outside it sounded like someone was shooting machine guns…”

Keykendahl looked out his back window and saw, “well, I’m not sure what I saw. Maybe a funnel. Blue, with lightning… I didn’t waste anytime figuring it out.” Within a matter of minutes, his trees tumbled through his roof and into his home, followed by torrents of rain that left three inches of water in his home. “It all happened within five minutes,” he said, still visibly shaken, but grateful to be alive. “The [tornado] lasted just a minute, then it was gone,” he said. Leaning against the tailgate of a pick-up truck, he spoke with animated hands and a tired look on his face as his sons and neighbors moved about. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Alan Goldstein, the vision behind Photography by Alan, fare better than many of his neighbors; his home had little structural damage, just a lot of debris to be racked up or bundled up. Cable lines hung loosely at the edge of the road by his driveway. “I just heard an enormous noise,” Goldstein said. “And then it was over.”

His neighbor Doris Hodess wasn’t as lucky.

Doris was at work when the storm hit, and was met halfway home by a friend who wanted to “prepare her” for the destruction on her property.

My whole [chain link] fence is down with a tree in,” she said, noting that a neighbor’s tree now covered her back yard. Another tree straddled her garage. Cracked and broken tree limbs were scattered everywhere and both home and property sustained far more significant damage than Goldstein, who voiced support for his distressed neighbor.

“I have no power, I don’t know if I can sleep here tonight,” Hodess said. “There’s a tree on my house.”

We found Sherry Nolen outside her daughter’s home, where their gas grill had been effectively relocated to a neighbor’s yard along with a basketball hoop. “There’s quite a lot of damage behind the houses,” she said, noting that she was originally planning to help her daughter, Tina Milton, move this weekend, since the house had been sold. behind the home, the heavily wood land was a tangled mire of wood shards and vines.

Apart from the obvious streetside damage, the view in the heavily wooded backyards of the Hickory Hills neighborhood was a spectacular display of Mother Nature run amok. Many trees were sheered off halfway up, with branches of different trees tangled together in a chaotic web.

~~ High Street – Madison Street – Downtown ~~

The last area to sustain significant damage was the High Street area and sections around Crossland and Madison. As the storm blew through, sirens wailed but with barely enough lead time to wake residents, many of whom said they “never heard the sirens.”

“What sirens,” said CO Publisher Bill Larson, who dropped work to dive under his computer desk as the roaring wind passed overhead. “Then the power went out.” Across the street, Greg Schlanger’s children popped bike helmets on the heads and dove into the cellar. A few blocks away, this writer, who couldn’t keep her eyes open, awoke from sleep and flew out of bed at the howling wail of the tornado siren, hitting the floor of the hall closet/shelter at a dead run. The storm took out a number of trees but left the homes unscathed. Larson and Schlanger were just one street away from much heavier damage. [In the absence of power, Larson and I opted to survey the damage, posting our first report at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning — with photos.]

In those first minutes after midnight, it was a different story one street over, where felled trees blocked roads and punched holes in roofs, where power lines looked like spaghetti on a plate. The music of the day Saturday was the buzz of chain saws, the sound of rakes and shovels, and not a little groaning from people with increasingly achy backs.

Barbette Norfleet and her daughter Rebekah, 12, were cleaning up their yard.

“I never heard it,” said Rebekah, who slept through the storm. Barbette did, though, and for her it was a scary night. As she worked to clear her home of rubble Saturday, she was very careful of her hands, which, as a massage therapist, are her stock in trade. “I have to make a living with my hands,” she said, using caution as worked. While the storm was severe, Barbette said that “after [the tornado in] 1999, this was a lot easier.”

The tornadic activity stopped just short of the downtown district.

Photos by Bill Larson, Aerial photos by Bobby Melton


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