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A year after a deadly tornado in Tennessee, people weigh the decision to rebuild

Blake Farmer Mar 3, 2021
Heard on:
Survivors have been dealing with the tornado's aftermath, from rebuilding homes to post-traumatic stress and grieving for lost loved ones. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A year after a deadly tornado in Tennessee, people weigh the decision to rebuild

Blake Farmer Mar 3, 2021
Heard on:
Survivors have been dealing with the tornado's aftermath, from rebuilding homes to post-traumatic stress and grieving for lost loved ones. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Rebuilding after a natural disaster is always more emotional than the typical construction project. And it’s especially hard for those who are traumatized from living through the destruction, like when a deadly tornado cut through Tennessee a year ago, as most people were sleeping.

The tornado killed 19 people in Putnam County, damaged hundreds of homes and scarred the community of Double Springs, situated in the growing outskirts of Cookeville — a city of about 34,000 people.

The decision to rebuild has been easy for some, but more difficult for others there.

The Williams family decided to build their dream home — a fortress, really.

Charles Williams found a local building-supply company that gave him a “survivor’s discount” on concrete walls. He doesn’t want to say how much that saved him but said it made the upgrade affordable. The new walls are 12 inches thick.

Charles Williams decided he would rebuild his own house since the general contractors were so busy in the pandemic-related building boom. While he was at it, Williams decided to make the walls of their new house thicker, and more tornado-proof. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

“These are rated at 245-mile-an-hour wind loads,” he said, slapping them to show their sturdiness. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

Charles also secured every roof truss to the walls and considered breakaway eaves before deciding those were too expensive.

In the master bedroom closet, he built a concrete safe room, big enough for Charles, his wife, Tamara, and their three kids.

“There was nothing left last time. I know for a fact that closet’s still going to be here,” he said. “And we’re going to be here.”

They hope to never need it. “Or at least if we ever do, then hopefully there’s more standing than what was standing that night,” Tamara said.

There were literally two walls left — the walls of the bathroom they were huddled in when the tornado struck.

A tough year all around

The Williamses are like dozens of households nearby in Double Springs, where people lost basically everything — their homes, their cars, their clothes.

All five family members have post-traumatic stress from the ordeal, Tamara said.

And it has been a trying year in many respects. Tamara, who is a nurse at the veterans hospital, came down with COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized for two weeks. Charles got sick too, but it wasn’t severe. Then he had a heart attack. All the while, he was the one rebuilding their house because he couldn’t find an affordable general contractor.

Now, he’s trying to lower the stress level and work fewer 16-hour days at the house.

He’s “slowing down a little bit, but I’m still plugging away at it,” he said.

He’s already planned the pool party and barbecue for when the house is finished this summer.

Rebuilding is only just now starting on many properties in the Double Springs area, outside Cookeville, Tennessee. Contractors have been busy with pandemic-related construction, which has slowed rebuilding for some tornado survivors. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

“I might not want to live there anymore”

The combination of COVID-19 restrictions and the pandemic-related building boom — driving up the prices of lumber and appliances — has made recovering from this storm especially slow and costly.

But half a mile away, Terri McWilliams said she’s been OK with taking it slow.

“Everybody’s like, ‘You’ll be in your house for the one-year anniversary.’ I’m like, I’m kind of glad we’re not,” she said, standing inside her home. At the one-year mark, the home is still just a frame.

McWilliams, who is an accountant at Tennessee Tech University and the mother of three older kids, wasn’t so sure she wanted to rebuild. Her teenage son was very nearly sucked away as they dove into the basement. Her husband, Ted, was traveling for work the night of the tornado.

He came back ready to clean up and start over.

“He was just like, ‘Hey, we’re going to build. I mean, what’s the problem?’ And I’m like, ‘Uhhh, because I might not want to live there anymore,’” Terri recalled.

Most of their mature trees were gone, including a pecan orchard, and that was important to Terri.

But mostly, the hesitation was related to weather anxiety. The first tornado warning after the storm, she nearly had a panic attack at the office while worrying about protecting her kids, she said. Ted said they had to have a series of conversations for him to understand the trauma his family had experienced in his absence.

“I had a good come-to-Jesus for me,” he said. “I didn’t realize. They went through this. I didn’t.”

Terri McWilliams reads Bible verses that friends wrote on the frame of their new home during rebuilding. She and her three children rushed to their basement just before their house was blown away. McWilliams says she struggled with whether she could live there again. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

No one to rebuild for

Ultimately, the McWilliamses decided to rebuild, albeit with slightly sturdier walls facing west, where the storm came from that night. They said their homeowners insurance hasn’t covered the cost of a few improvements like that.

While the construction sites tell one kind of story, the many empty lots tell another.

For some, rebuilding was too much to take on. Or, in several cases, no one was left to rebuild.  

Brian Selby, a father and over-the-road truck driver, drew the blinds to look out the back window of his grandmother’s house, where he lives with his children. The night of the storm, he watched his parents’ mobile home get ripped from its foundation.

Both of his parents were killed by the storm.

Brian Selby holds a momento to his parents who died in the tornado on March 3, 2020. They traveled with a camper. The wood that the replica camper is mounted on is made from decking from their mobile home, that Selby watched fly away in the storm. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

Selby said he has nightmares about the storm and what he saw. But he also said the Double Springs community is now a place where instead of waving at passing neighbors, they have conversations and share meals.

“Several times I’ve thought about leaving,” Selby said. “But after this, I wouldn’t go nowhere.”

His family decided not to rebuild his parents’ home. But Selby’s brother is constructing a memorial in its place.

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