'Never seen nothing like this': Middle TN communities devastated after tornado, storms
Melissa Keller ran to her bathroom to hide as the blasts of wind grew into the sound of a train barreling down on the community where she's lived with her family for nearly 50 years.
She was one of the lucky ones in Lewis County. Her house was still standing Saturday morning after a massive storm tore across the South, wreaking havoc and killing 21 people, including 10 people in West Tennessee.
The Nashville Weather Service confirmed an EF2 tornado touched ground in Lewis County. The same cell also struck communities just over the Rutherford County line, which is still being assessed by weather crews to determine if it was a tornado and its strength.
"I've never seen nothing like this," Keller said. "It moved that building over 15 foot."
But dozens of structures have been destroyed following a possible tornado and storms that ravages parts of southern and southwestern Middle Tennessee.
The latest: Rutherford hit hard by storms, likely tornadoes in Middle Tennessee
Cannon, Lewis, Macon, Marshall, Rutherford and Wayne counties sustained devastating damage Friday night into early Saturday morning. National Weather Service officials were still determining whether any of the harsh wind gusts were actually tornadoes in all of the areas.
Lewis County is in southcentral Middle Tennessee with its county seat in Hohenwald. Officials reported about 10 homes lost there early Saturday. Many more were damaged as emergency crews continue to assess the destruction from overnight storms.
"It destroyed my sister’s house out on that peak," Keller said. "They just built it last year."
Readyville community looks to rebuild after tornado
In Readyville, volunteers searched and cleared debris, while dangerous winds continued to gust through the area.
Beloved and historic properties were destroyed, including the Readyville Mill, built in 1812 and rebuilt after it was flattened in the Civil War.
Idyllic event venue The Corners on Stones River in a large brick home built in 1829, and Russell's Market, known for its bologna sandwiches, were expected to be near-total losses.
The roof was torn up at the Readyville Post Office, which serves a community by the border of Cannon and Rutherford counties.
Utility crews with Middle Tennessee Electric blocked roads to repair downed power lines and poles, while neighbors used chainsaws to cut up trees that fell in large numbers.
Readyville resident Cameron Bailey helped neighbors after the tornado that arrived just before 2 a.m. It passed through the community without damaging his home while his family sought shelter in their basement.
"When we came out, we had neighbors calling us for help," Bailey said. "People were trapped under their homes. I got my friend's family out of their cellar."
Rutherford County officials seek help from governor
Rutherford County Mayor Joe Carr asked Gov. Bill Lee to declare a state of emergency and provide state assistance for the "wiped out" Readyville community, according to a press release from Rutherford County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lisa Marchesoni.
“It looked like a bomb went off,” Carr said in the press release.
Some residents had minor injuries.
The storm also destroyed numerous homes on Readyville Street and the Tilford Lumber Co. building, the mayor said.
“Some homes eerily were left untouched,” said Carr, who met with Cannon County Mayor Greg Mitchell to support the rescue efforts in both counties.
Some homes suffered damage on U.S. Highway 70 South, known as John Bragg Highway.
Rutherford County Emergency Management Agency Director Chris Clark sent a letter to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to request the state of the emergency declaration.
“The request will make sure rescue and recovery efforts are not hindered,” Clark said.
Emergency responders searched for residents in the dark and continued the rescue operations after daylight.
The tornado struck just before 2 a.m., drawing response by Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, Rutherford County Fire & Rescue, Kittrell Volunteer Fire Department, Rutherford County Emergency Medical Services, Rutherford County Emergency Management Agency and Murfreesboro Fire Rescue.
“They showed compassion and kindness at a time of great loss,” Carr said. “We don’t know how good our people are until they rise to the occasion. I could not be more proud.”
Readyville residents reflect on surviving the tornado
Bailey saw homes that were flattened and carried off their foundations in Readyville.
"From what I understand in this immediate area, everyone is safe, and no one was killed," Bailey said. "So in that regard, we're very blessed. Everything else here is material. We'll build back. We are a great community. Everything else will heal in time."
Readyville resident Dan Pfeifer was shaken by the experience.
"I went to the closet just in time, and it was frightening," Pfeifer said. "I was waiting for my house to come apart. It didn't fortunately, but you can't say the same for everybody else here. It's pretty bad. It's such a pretty little neighborhood and it's historic. It will never be the same."
Seeing storm damage in person in your community has far more impact than seeing it on the TV news, Pfeifer said.
"Thank God nobody was seriously hurt," he added. "Hopefully we can all recover."
Extended family gathers to help at grandmother's Readyville home
The extended family of Cheryl Johnson came to clean up debris at the Readyville home she built in 1969 with her first husband before he died. The tornado that damaged her roof destroyed an awning, antique wrought-iron patio furniture and the large detached garage where her second husband, who died a couple of years ago, kept all his tools.
"My grandparents owned all this land," said Johnson, who inherited about 8 acres from them. "They gave me an acre to build this house."
Seventy-nine-year-old Johnson has lived in Readyville her entire life.
"This whole community means a lot to me," she said. "I swam at the Readyville Dam. We didn't know what a swimming pool was."
Johnson was at her home alone when her son Scott Smithson called her at 1:54 a.m. to tell her to get in the safe place in the closet under the stairs.
Her grandson Jacob Smithson then left his home in Murfreesboro and "rushed down here" to be with her the rest of the night.
Johnson's son Alan Smithson and daughter Angie Graham also came with other family members to help clean up the destruction.
"Glad she's OK," Alan Smithson said.
Graham said she hated that her stepfather's big garage was destroyed with tools scattered everywhere.
"He would have been heartbroken," said Graham, who lives in Murfreesboro. "He loved his garage and mowing this big yard, which I get to do now."
The tornado bent two tall metal poles in Johnson's yard that held hollow gourds serving as nests for purple martins that eat mosquitos and other bugs.
"They come every spring at the end of March and leave in July," Johnson said.
"And they fly to South America," her son Alan Smithson added.
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Photojournalist Liam Kennedy contributed to this story.
Rutherford County offers emergency services for tornado victims
Rutherford County Highway Department workers and volunteers helped clear roads.
Middle Tennessee Electric was restoring power to the perimeter and commercial buildings. Gas companies serving the area were checking gas delivery.
The Solid Waste Department director was developing plans to remove debris.
New Hope Church of Christ at 4296 Murfreesboro Road near Readyville opened the church for victims and first responders for restroom facilities. Volunteers are being coordinated to help clean the debris beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday at the church. Volunteers and impacted residents must check in and get an armband. They should bring work gloves and hard-soled shoes.
The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Westside Elementary School at 3714 Murfreesboro Road in Readyville for people displaced or needing storm-related assistance.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Possible tornado damage assessed in Middle Tennessee counties