Community remembers tornado one year later

On the night of March 3, 2020, a devastating EF4 tornado took the lives of 19 people in Putnam County. Our community has never been the same. 

“Recovery has been difficult. Many of us were affected in different ways. For me, anytime a weather radio goes off, it kind of freaks me out. My brother almost didn’t make it. He had to dive down the stairs into the basement as the house was getting flipped,” said Taylor McWilliams, sophomore Finance major. 

The tornado was rated an EF4, which resulted in 19 out of 24 deaths in the tornadoes the night of March 3. When the tornado hit, it was in the dead of night. As a result, many did not know the risk of severe weather, or received the warning until the tornado was already overhead, eliminating time for families to get to their safe place. 

“My mom came into my room with my younger sister and got me up, and then she went to wake up my brother. As she left my room, I looked out the window and saw our cars sliding across the driveway from the wind. After seeing that, I realized this was the real deal,” said McWilliams.

In the hours that followed, the community came together. Volunteers showed up in thousands resulting in many being turned away due to the fact that it was simply too much for organizers to transport to the affected areas. Those volunteers who were part of the cleanup process came from The Upper Cumberland area as well as surrounding states. The extensive process is still ongoing today as many families have not yet completed the rebuilding process. 

Many communities are still rebuilding a year later after the devastation of the EF4 tornado on March 3, 2020. The Tech and Cookeville communities came together to remember those affected by the storm on the one year anniversary. Photo provided by David Gorchoff.

“We lost pretty much everything. Our house and cars were all destroyed, as well as our barn and garage, but my dog who lives outside somehow survived. That was pretty epic. We are getting close to getting done rebuilding the house, ” McWilliams said in regard to his personal loss. 

Last year, the Tech and Upper Cumberland communities loaded up and headed to the tornado site to help families who lost their homes, like the McWilliams family. One year later, Tennessee Tech continues to play a vital role offering an alternative spring break option to volunteer. March 3, 2021, was designated as Tech Strong: Day of Service. 

“We had 25 – 30 students sign up for alternative spring break service projects today. We still have 90 spots available for folks to sign up for,” said Michelle Huddleston, Assistant Director of the Service Learning Center and Campus Compass.

If you would like to volunteer, you can visit https://www.tntech.edu/volunteer/springbreak/ to sign up.

One additional tribute to the lives lost was the Ringing of the Bells that took place at 1:48 p.m. as bells at Derryberry Hall and across the county rang 19 times in memory of each resident from our community who lost his or her life. 

While there is nothing that can take away the pain left by this tragedy, the impact that each person has made in response to our neighbors in need is one that will not be forgotten. The local community and others from miles around displayed selfless love and a kindness that creates a ripple effect. 

Nineteen lives may have been taken from our community, but their memories will go on as families, friends, and even strangers feel their impact in all of their lives. As time goes on, the community will continue to rise up and join together in remembrance of the night that changed so many lives in an instant.