To say that this past week has been one of the most difficult in the history of Cookeville, Putnam County, and Tennessee Tech would be a gross understatement. Eighteen fatalities, 88 injured, over 500 buildings damaged, over 100 families lost homes. Five families lost precious children and some children lost both parents. The numbers are staggering. The stories of survival are moving; the stories of loss are heartbreaking.
Kari and I have lived in the South all our lives. We have lived through multiple tornados and even witnessed firsthand the massive devastation of Hurricane Katrina while living in Mississippi. The old timers in my West Tennessee hometown, where tornados are much more common, still talk about the big EF-4 that wiped out the entire downtown, killing 40 people in 1952. However, knowing the potentially destructive path of nature never prepares you for something like this. Even one or two fatalities is relatively uncommon, but to have 18 from one community within a few seconds is pretty rare, even in the South.
The seemingly randomness of nature was evident with whole communities wiped out literally feet away from untouched homes. Most of the devastation occurred not 10 minutes west of campus, but fortunately, the Tennessee Tech campus and our students were spared any physical damage. No students were physically injured, to our knowledge. About a dozen or so faculty or staff households were lost, and three were hospitalized for serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
More than 70,000 residents call Putnam County home along with 10,000 adopted student residents. But this is a close knit community. Everyone knows someone, or they know someone who knows someone who was directly impacted. Even though the campus was physically spared, we have all felt the emotional toll from the storm. Response from Tech was significant and immediate. We cancelled classes last Tuesday and Wednesday to serve and volunteer. More than 1,000 students, faculty, and staff joined the 2,500 plus volunteers over those two days and since to help in any way possible. Our Tech community helped with search and rescue, cleanup efforts, unloading and organizing supplies at shelter sites, and comforting those families most affected.
It’s said that adversity doesn’t develop character, but it does reveal it. That was on full display in Cookeville this week. The recovery and rebuilding effort started immediately. It will take weeks, months, maybe years to fully recover the property loss alone. The loss of family, friends, and loved ones will never be healed, but Tech students and staff have made and will continue to make a huge difference in the recovery efforts. We held a prayer service on campus last Thursday in the middle of the day for about 1,000 students, faculty, and staff to help us all process and strengthen each other.
As much as the students have had an impact on the Cookeville community, this tragedy has made an indelible impression on many of them as well. They see life differently now. For some, it was the first time they learned firsthand how fragile and unpredictable life can be. They are much more appreciative of simple blessings than ever before. I believe they have also learned the value of community and witnessed the blessings of being a part of something bigger than oneself. Cookeville really is Tennessee’s College Town, and Tech is blessed to be an integral part of this community. The spirit of this community is healthy and strong! One of the many national news crews here this week reported that “everyone they spoke with mentioned God.” Faith, family, and friends will see us through this tragedy. I am so proud that Tennessee Tech is part of such a wonderful community.
Words cannot express our gratitude to all the first responders and emergency personnel who have worked 24/7 at great personal risk to help others. Special thanks to campus police and residence hall staff who made sure those students housed on campus remained safe. Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter, Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton, and Sheriff Eddie Farris have been incredible. I can’t imagine three better individuals to be in charge at such a critical time for this community. We also thank Governor Lee, Lt. Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, State Sen. Paul Bailey, and State Rep. Ryan Williams for their quick and decisive action with state support. That was followed immediately with federal support led by President Trump, Senators Alexander and Blackburn, and Tech’s own Congressman John Rose.
In the future, old timers will recall the Cookeville EF-4 of 2020. They will talk of the damage and devastation, but will mostly tell of the incredible heart and spirit of this community—Tennessee’s College Town!
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