Especially this time of year, tornado warnings are not out of the ordinary in Putnam County. But when Terri McWilliams’ phone started buzzing on her nightstand, she decided not to ignore it.
“By the time that warning went off, we had minutes,” she says.
The wind was howling. And then it began to roar.
“We came running down the basement, and my son, who is 17, was the last one, and he had to dive down the stairs because the walls were falling in and the roof was lifting,” McWilliams says. “He was under rubble but was able to climb into the basement.”
Their home, in the rolling hills of a community called Double Springs, had crumbled around them. They were lucky to be alive. Many more in Putnam County, about 90 minutes east of Nashville, either didn’t get the warning or had nowhere to go.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 19 people in Putnam County were reported dead, out of 25 fatalities across Middle Tennessee.
The Tennessee National Guard has already deployed 30 troops to Putnam County and 30 more are on the way.
It was a warm night with rain moving through. But even meteorologists were caught somewhat off-guard.
“We were under a slight risk of severe storms,” Mark Rose with the National Weather Service says. “We did not expect a tornado of this magnitude to happen in the middle of the night.”
The storm twisted along an 80 mile path, toppling semi-trucks, uprooting old trees and bending metal power poles thought unbendable. Two-by-fours became harpoons, stabbing into the soft lawns but also piercing glass and metal.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, the first lady and several top state officials toured the damage in Middle Tennessee via helicopter. They landed in Cookeville, the Putnam County seat, at 12:30 p.m. The governor addressed emergency crews and visited a neighborhood just outside Cookeville with local officials.
“I’m emotional. This is emotional. This is my district,” said Republican Paul Bailey, staring out amid mud and destroyed homes.
The governor’s entourage saw flattened businesses and homeowners digging through debris.
That’s also how Terri McWilliams spent the day: looking for photographs and heirlooms. But she’s thankful her family is alive. Not every household is so lucky, she says.
“We’re going through looking for stuff. They’re going through looking for people. And so, that makes the perspective change.”