Everyday Heroes in the Wake of Disaster
Manage episode 257997408 series 2623091
- Sheriff Eddie Farris of Putnam County
- Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter
- EMT Worker, Darrell Jennings
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Sheriff Farris of Putnam County has been in law enforcement for over 32 years. @1:35
- Putnam County Mayor Porter was EMS director for many years before becoming County Mayor. @3:28
- “There’s a time and a season that we live in, and God prepares us for those times.” - Senator Paul Bailey @6:08
- Darrell Jennings grew up in Putnam County his whole life. He has experience as a firefighter and an EMT. @11:26
- Jennings and his wife turned their home into a triage shelter during the Cookeville tornado before help arrived. He became the Emergency Operations Command Center on scene. @12:25
- “For full disclosure, I think the reason that Putnam County experienced the most loss of life was because a lot of people were like me. They had watched it until Smith County and they assumed that it was going to just be a storm.” - Senator Bailey @16:24
- After the storm hit, Highway 70 was impassable. The telephones lines and electrical lines were down. Debris was on the roads. @23:58
- 19 people died and 92 were injured because of the tornado. @25:22
- After the tornado hit, the community came together to rebuild and recover. @30:21
- Jennings saw the storm rip the roof off of a building near him, so told his family to get in the hallway and brace for the tornado. Shards of glass burst through his daughter’s room. @36:09
- As soon as the tornado passed, Jennings went outside to help his neighbors. @44:06
- The Jennings home became a triage shelter for those injured. People were going there seeking help. They had to move it to a church because so many people came for help. @48:10
- “All over the region all over the Upper Cumberland, volunteer firemen, you had EMS workers. I mean, it was just unbelievable, the response that we witnessed here in the Upper Cumberland and here in Putnam County.” @50:27
- As of today, 1.5 million has been donated to the Cookeville Putnam County Tornado Relief Fund. 100% of the funds go to survivors. @51:06
Announcer: For the politics of Nashville, to the history of the Upper Cumberland, this is the Backroads and Backstories podcast, with Senator Paul Bailey.
Senator Bailey: Welcome back to the podcast. I’m your host, Senator Paul Bailey. In today’s episode, we have invited Sheriff Eddie Farris of Putnam County, Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter, Darrell Jennings, an EMT worker as well as a firefighter who, along with his wife, turned his home into a triage shelter during the Cookeville tornado before help arrived. These men are here today to talk about the effects of the tornado, and how they were able to help people in the wake of the disaster. But before we get into our major topic today, I’d like for Sheriff Eddie Ferris to tell us a little bit about his backstory. Welcome, Sheriff.
Sheriff Farris: Yeah, welcome, Senator, always glad to be with you.
Senator Bailey: Well, great. So, you’re a native Putnam Countyean?
Sheriff Farris: Yes, long, lifetime native here of Putnam County. Glad to be able to say that. It’s been great to live here all my years. I did go away for college for a short time but back here working.
Senator Bailey: That was at ETSU?
Sheriff Farris: I went to ETSU, yep.
Senator Bailey: And played baseball.
Sheriff Farris: And played baseball.
Senator Bailey: And, see, I think of you as being more of a football player than I do a—
Sheriff Farris: Well, I’ve gained a little weight out since I got out of college [laughing], so please don’t hold that against me. Yeah, no, actually, I played center field and could actually run a little bit, back in the day. But yes, always glad to be here. I’m working on 32 years of law enforcement and—
Senator Bailey: Well thank you.
Sheriff Farris: Started the latter part of 1989 as a deputy here at Putnam County Sheriff with Sheriff Jerry Abston, and then in 1995, I moved to the Tennessee highway patrol, in the Criminal Investigation Division and in 2000, was assigned over to the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force out of the Memphis division, and spent some time there. And 2004 was promoted to the Assistant Special Agent In Charge there at Tennessee Highway Patrol. And 2006 Governor Bredesen transferred us over to the TBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. So spent, from 2006 until 2014, there, and as you know, in September ’14, I was elected and became Sheriff of Putnam County and glad to be here.
Senator Bailey: Yeah, I think your victory in 2014 was, pretty much, overwhelming, wasn’t it?
Mayor Porter: What victory? He didn’t have an opponent.
Sheriff Farris: Yeah.
Senator Bailey: Well, I said it was overwhelming.
Sheriff Farris: I think we’ve been blessed at this table right here. No, I appreciate the citizens greatly, they’ve shown huge support, not just to me, but all the men and women at the sheriff’s office since I’ve been there. So, very grateful.
Senator Bailey: Well, and we appreciate your service. And one thing that I can say about the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, it sure has a professionalism about it. And we appreciate your leadership there—
Sheriff Farris: Thank you.
Senator Bailey: —and so, I know that you love this area, this is home to you and after attending college and then, of course, going through your law enforcement career, you’ve spent most of your time here raising your family in the Putnam County area. We’re going to turn down to County Mayor Randy Porter.
Mayor Porter: Good morning.
Senator Bailey: Randy, welcome. Thank you for being with us.
Mayor Porter: Thank you for having us, Paul.
Senator Bailey: And so, just tell us a little bit about yourself, about your background and coming to Putnam County and your years of service with EMS.
Mayor Porter: Right.
Senator Bailey: And I think you were the EMS director for many years before becoming County Mayor—
Mayor Porter: Correct.
Senator Bailey: —in Putnam County. So, I think as we end up talking about our topic today, in regards to the tornado that came through, those years of service in the EMS prepared you for the days that came after the tornado. But if you would, just tell us a little bit about yourself.
Mayor Porter: Absolutely. Originally born in Macon County on a big farm. Came to Tennessee Tech to go to college and never left. Great community, just never been anywhere else in my life that I loved any more than Cookeville, Putnam County. I started with the Putnam County EMS back in 1980, became the director in ’83 and served over 30 years as the director of not only EMS, but 911, technology, and several other departments inside of emergency services for the county.
I then ran for County Mayor in 2014. Same time Sheriff Farris did. We were blessed to be elected, and been serving County Mayor now for about five and a half years. When I look back over my years of service in emergency services, we plan for these kinds of things, like tornadoes, we plan, we drill, but you never think it’s going to happen in your community. Saw a lot of disasters over the years in my time at EMS and 911. Ice storm back in 2015.
I look back at that ice storm, and as bad as it was, we didn’t have any loss of life with it, it was all damage. I think that helped prepare myself, and I think all the rest of us sitting here this morning will say it helped prepare all of us, for this disaster—
Sheriff Farris: It almost seemed like a warm-up, didn’t it, Mayor?
Mayor Porter: It absolutely did, Sheriff. We learned a lot of things back then that maybe we didn’t do as good as we could have, or things we should have done faster. I have to say to this tornado response, the best response I was ever involved in, in any disaster in Putnam County or any of the surrounding counties that we responded to, but I think the good Lord knew what he was doing, and he prepared us well for it with the 2015 ice storm, and so we had a good response. Devastating to our county, sorrowful, but—and it’s hurt because a lot of the folks that we lost in that were either close friends or people we knew, but that’s my backstory. All my years of EMS, and then being County Mayor now.
Senator Bailey: Yeah, I think you touched on something that a good friend of ours told me a few days ago, that God had prepared you for that day when the tornadoes came through and you rose to the occasion. And I think the same for Darrell and also Sheriff Farris. So, there’s a time and a season that we live in, and God prepares us for those times. And so…
Mayor Porter: I think he puts us where he needs us. Sometimes we don’t realize that at the time, but I think as you look back over your life, he puts us where he needs us, and I think he had us all in place for this, and I think it’s a reason that we had the great response that we did to this disaster.
Senator Bailey: And let me just say this before I move to Darrell and Darrell introduces hisself to our audience. You know, 2015, that was our first year, all of us, as far as being elected officials, County Mayor, Sheriff, and I, as the state Senator at that time, and comparing just a few weeks ago’s response to 2015. It, to me, there was—
Mayor Porter: Night and day.
Senator Bailey: —night and day difference in the state response and the local response. And so, but again, we were all newly elected at that time, and although y’all, being the three of you, had more experience in natural disasters, but I still don’t think that you are fully prepared until you go through a natural disaster and you are the leader having to conduct and especially county services and so forth and make sure that you do search and rescue.
Mayor Porter: You think about it Paul, our first year in office, we were elected, went into the September, February, we had the ice storm, then that summer, we had a tornado, and we had a flood, all in the first year of all of us going into office, and—
Sheriff Farris: And one thing noted is that we were all trying to rebuild our respective offices and divisions the way we wanted them to run, and the way we felt like they should run, with professionalism, with the employees, and all of the above, so we were still trying to get up to speed ourself in the office itself.
And I think the last few years when this tragic happened, I think it certainly showed right off the front end that not only are we squared away in our offices, but we’re working together as a team, and I know we talk about that a lot, but we all have things that we have to do, and a point to be made, and responsibilities, and seemed like we all knew what to do, and how to do it, and did it well, and communicated which is always the key.
Senator Bailey: Yeah. And, you know, representing six counties as a state Senator, not all of my counties work well together, as far as the various departments, and I tell the story of Putnam County and Cookeville, about how that everyone works together, and that’s what makes you so unique, and it also helps when times of disaster strikes your area, that you’re able to come together and work for the good of the citizens. Let’s bring in Darrell, Darrell Jennings, welcome.
Mr. Jennings: Thank you.
Senator Bailey: I know that you’re an EMT and a firefighter at heart, and you make a little salsa on the side, and—
Mayor Porter: It’s really good salsa. [laughing]
Senator Bailey: And he’s also a construction worker. So, you wear a lot of hats.
Mr. Jennings: I do.
Senator Bailey: Tell us a little bit about your background, and we’ll talk more about the role you played there on March the 3rd, in the early morning hours, and because your home was basically at ground zero, it was were, just a few hundred yards to the west of your home was where the tornado originally touched down, but let’s give our audience just a little bit of background about yourself and what prepared you for being able to meet the challenge of that morning.
Mr. Jennings: Well, I think Randy said it best, every experience in life prepares us and educates us in one way or the other, and I firmly believe that even more now after the storm. But I’m from Cookeville, Putnam County I’ve lived here my entire life, now all 50 years of it, and love it. I’ve not experienced any other communities, I wouldn’t want to. This is the place I want to call home forever. So, my background; I grew up in construction. My dad was a contractor, and so I just kind of naturally fell into line with that.
But the show in the ‘70s, Emergency! of course, hit a chord with me as a kid, and I said, “I want to be a firefighter when I grew up.” And so I followed through with that at 18. And I’ve been a firefighter with Putnam County for 32 years, now. So, a great experience, a great group of guys, a brotherhood, and we've done a lot of good training over the years, which I really feel has been what prepared me to act without thinking that morning.
And several years ago, I went through EMT school just to further that education and feel like I could professionally help someone if I needed to, if that need arose medically. But my day job is still construction. I’m a licensed contractor here in the state, and have done every facet of the building process from ground up, and still love to do that as well. And yes, my retirement plan is the salsa you speak of, and we’re currently looking for a property to build a—
Senator Bailey: You know, we would have given you an opportunity to brought us a jar of salsa.
Sheriff Farris: It’s morning, but it’s not that morning.
Mr. Jennings: Most people like, “You got that in your truck?” And so, we joke about it. Used to be we did, there was always a cooler in the truck. And, when people ask, I was able to do that. So, we’re looking for land to further expand that business, and definitely get it to the retirement stage, where we can enjoy that.
But, I think everything that I’ve been through, prepared me in one way or the other, and I take absolutely no credit for anything that we did that morning. And again, Randy said it best, God prepared us.
Mayor Porter: That wouldn’t be right, Paul. He’s got to take some credit. He became the Emergency Operations Command Center on scene.
Senator Bailey: Yeah he did.
Mayor Porter: And I know he—in EMS, emergency services, law enforcement, nobody—we don’t want to take credit, we don’t brag or anything, but now I got to brag on Darrell. He brought his little subdivision, which was almost totally destroyed.
Senator Bailey: Destroyed, yeah.
Mayor Porter: And thankfully his house became the command center that all these people went to, and we were in contact with him, as he was helping those people to know what they needed down there. So, I just want to interject and say, the definition of heroes in our community has changed.
Senator Bailey: Right.
Mayor Porter: And Darrell is now one of those.
Senator Bailey: Right. Well, let’s go back just a little bit. And so, it’s the evening of March the 2nd. I’m in downtown Nashville, because the legislature is in session, and knew that we were supposed to have thunderstorms coming through, and knew that there was a possibility of severe thunderstorms. So, I had gone to my apartment, which is in downtown Nashville. And I remember just turning on the news and then all of a sudden hearing about the rotation in the clouds. And then, all of a sudden, I’m watching Channel Five news, they go off the air for a couple of three minutes and then they come back on and they’re saying, “We’ve taken a direct hit.”
And so, I had been looking out the window, which the window of my bedroom looks to the east, and I was looking at the apartment building beside me, and I could see the shrubbery and all of the pool furniture was just blowing around and at the time, I thought it was more of a straight-line wind, until Channel Five came back on and said, “We’ve taken a direct hit.”
Well, at that point, I started watching the news all the way up until they said that the tornado had lifted outside of Gordonsville in Smith County, and it was somewhere between around 1:30 in the morning, 1… you know, somewhere in there. I said, “Okay.” Usually, when it hits the plateau, it dissipates and we don’t have anything to worry about. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case that night, but I had gone to bed around 1:30 thinking that everything’s good and the plateau, not realizing the damage that we would see the next morning from Nashville all the way into Putnam County. So, around 5:30, I received a phone call from Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance and he said, “Senator, have you seen the news reports of the damage that’s coming in?” And I said, “Well, I saw last night on television.” He said, “I’m talking about Putnam County.”
He said, “There was major devastation in Putnam County.” And I said, “No, I did not realize that.” So, then, Commissioner of Safety started calling, Commissioner of TDOT started calling, and they were wanting to know where the command center was going to be, because they wanted to get their employees mobilized to be here to work on the response from the state and I know, probably just a little before 6:00, I started calling Mayor Porter and Sheriff Farris, and saying, “Okay, tell me about it.” And of course, Randy, his—I’ll never forget this, when Randy answers the phone, and he just says, “Oh, Paul, it’s bad. It’s really bad.” And so, those words will be forever etched in my mind, whenever he said that to me. And said, “Randy, I had no idea.” So, from there, we found out where we needed to mobilize. And so, I worked with the State Department so that they could get here.
But, let me turn to you, Randy. And I’m going to ask you and the sheriff to share just a little bit about your experience. And at what point in time you realized, and you started getting your people mobilized in the areas, to start doing search and rescue. But were you awake Mayor Porter at that time, or had you gone to bed? And for full disclosure, I think that’s the reason that Putnam County experienced the most loss of life because maybe a lot of people were like me. They had watched it until Smith County and they assumed that it was going to just be a storm. They didn’t realize that it was going to be even a bigger storm and a stronger tornado when it hit Putnam County. But where were you, and what was your posture at that time?
Mayor Porter: Well, same as you. We thought that it lifted and then everything was good. So, we’d gone to bed, and actually I’d fell asleep, and, of course, my phone started blowing up with all the tornado warnings and everything, and as I picked my phone up and was flipping through those tornado warnings, Tyler Smith, our Emergency Management Director was calling me, and he said, “Randy, we’ve been hit with a direct hit. And I said, “Tyler, how bad is it?” And he said, “Well, we think it’s really bad.” He said, “Are you in your basement?” And I said, “No.” He said, “You need to go because it looks like if it doesn’t pick up, it’s headed right towards you.” I said, “Okay.”
So, grabbed the family went in the basement, waited for the storm to pass, and then called him back and we were having a hard time communicating because it knocked so many cell towers down, and knock things out. So, Tyler answered, finally, and he said, “Randy, it’s really bad.” And I said, “Okay,” I said, “Where did it hit?” And he was telling me about the western side of Putnam County. I just, throw my clothes on, and headed in. Got into the Emergency Operations Center, and I’ll never forget, you know, they always talk about that eerie quiet. So, I go out to my car, it’s that eerie quiet.
There’s just nothing, no rain, no anything. And I drive in the Emergency Operations Center. And it’s that way the whole time. I get out there and go in, and, of course, all of the folks besides me Tyler, and 911 dispatchers are on the scene. And it was just an eerie feeling. And as we started getting reports back, we knew it was going to be bad. We just didn’t realize how bad it was going to be with the loss of life. That was probably the most devastating thing that we went through.
And that was not something that happened to me immediately. We would get reports of one, or two, three, and then as the day went on, it slowly increased even into the next day. And so, we have a great response team when it comes to EMS, fire rescue, law enforcement, and everything. The one thing I kept hearing from folks as I talked to people on the scene, talked to one gentleman, he was in his bed and the next thing he knows he’s out in his yard. He said, “Randy, by the time I got to myself, and realized what had happened, I already, we heard the sirens in the background coming to us.” We had an amazing group of responders, that I know Sheriff will say the same thing, we didn’t have to call people and tell them to come in—
Senator Bailey: Yeah, they just showed up. They just showed up. I mean, we had every ambulance we had manned within a matter of a few minutes because once everybody heard, they were coming in. So, it was an eerie night. I’ll never forget, as you said, the words, I’ll never forget that feeling. And the quiet that there was in it, but knowing that we had took a devastating hit to our county.
Senator Bailey: So, Sheriff, I remember talking with you on the phone and you saying the same thing. You just said, “Senator, it’s bad.” And your comment to me was is we could have 15 to 20 deaths out of this. And that was hard for me to comprehend at that time, that 15 to 20 deaths could actually take place in Putnam County, in an area that I represent. And so, really it was just incomprehensible for me to understand that. But tell us a little bit about how you get mobilized. Your people were, and—I say your deputies, your officer— obviously there they’re just right in the middle of it.
Sheriff Farris: Absolutely. So, for me I was, like both of you, I’d watched the news up till about 11:30 p.m. And usually we keep our deputies on standby if we got bad weather coming in, but we didn’t really—didn’t seem like it was a whole lot of stuff going on there so—but just short of two o’clock, right after the tornado hit, my daughter called me, and woke me up, and, of course, I’m looking at the phone and, you know, when the dad’s daughter’s calling at 1:45 or 1:50 morning it’s not good.
And so, I answered it with a little apprehension, and she said, “Dad, are you up?” And I said, “No, I’m not. What’s going on.” She said, “There’s been a tornado, you need to get going.” About that time my dispatch started calling, so I immediately got up, went into dispatch, had the dispatchers use our [Ready Up] system which we use countywide, and use quite a bit statewide, to page everybody over the computer, over their phones and get them up and going and, as you noted, we did do that.
But most of them, as soon as they started knowing something was wrong, they were in the car and coming. And so, for us at that point, it was a matter of, I went to our dispatch, and I was communicating with the mayor on the phone, but I needed to go to my dispatch and started getting our command center going and all of our equipment going. I headed that way. And so, we’d done that. We had a couple of different command centers down there, although we were all working together in Cookeville City and other law enforcement was working right beside Darrell and that group, and Tyler Smith and all that.
And so, it was working good but took just a few minutes. In 1974, we had one, a tornado come through, called Black Wednesday. I was 10 years old, and it came right beside my house, and my dad and some of my family was part of rescuing and all that, and it killed, I think, 22 from Putnam County to the edge of Kentucky, so it was bad, and I knew—and so, once I got out of dispatch and actually got down to the scene, it was just amazing. I kept telling my dad that if I had blindfolded you and took you down there, and [inaudible 00:23:12], you would have no idea where you were at, it was that bad.
Senator Bailey: Well, let me ask this question, and Darrell, because I want to talk about your story. But I’m assuming Highway 70 was impassable. So, probably EMS workers, your volunteer firemen, deputies are calling and saying we’ve got to get Highway 70 cleared to be able to get into those areas, and then you’re looking for alternative roads to get to those areas. So, I’m assuming that’s the first thing that came in—
Sheriff Farris: Oh yeah.
Senator Bailey: —is Highway 70 is impassable right now. You had telephone lines down, you had electrical lines down, you had debris on the roads. And so, that was probably a major hurdle in trying to reroute emergency traffic into those areas to start doing—
Sheriff Farris: Absolutely. We had people on already at that time, not just deputies and officers but volunteers already calling and showing up during that time. And that’s where we were sending them down there at that time, to get the debris off the road. We wasn’t so much worried about the side roads. We knew we would get there, we were going there on foot. But we had to get the main road open. And so, that was the key right there. And I know we talked about power lines and a lot of stuff, and although it wasn’t a danger, it was a real hindrance there because all the debris and everything, we actually had to send our maintenance down there to start changing tires the deputies, EMS, and everybody—
Senator Bailey: I heard about that.
Sheriff Farris: —kept continuing to have flats, and it was just debris and nails and just sharp objects everywhere, so it was real hindrance. And so, we were trying to clean that off and work, too and, of course, obviously the first—well, we were finding victims 12 hours later, which was sad enough, but we were in emergency mode then to try to find—the victims is one issue, but who else is trapped that needs help?
And so, we were trying so hard to find those folks. And we were trying to take it grid by grid, and working with law enforcement and EMAS and rescue guys. And so, it was a real process, but it wasn’t fun. But, I have to say at the end of the day, I don’t know how we could have done much better. I think it worked really well.
Senator Bailey: I agree.
Mayor Porter: And you have to remember, too, Paul, we talked about the 19 deceased, which is terrible. There was 92 people that were injured, that was for EMS and our hospital to take care of that many people, [crosstalk 00:25:39] most of them. There was about three or four that went to the trauma centers, but we’ve got an amazing Regional Medical Center here to be able to take care of 92 injured. So, it all had to work good to be able to—for all that to happen, and for things to come together like they did.
Senator Bailey: Before I turn to you, Darrell, and hear more about your story, and especially I want my audience to hear about your story—so, that morning, the governor’s office contacts me and Representative Williams and said the governor’s going to Putnam County. We’re going to fly over the entire path of the tornado, but we’re going to Putnam County. He wanted us to come along with him.
And it’s emotional to me today. I did not realize the devastation that had taken place until we got to Mount Juliet. And I think I shared with you that morning, Randy when we were here on the ground, that how devastating it was to see those huge warehouses and distribution centers there in the Mount Juliet, Wilson County area, some were gone. I mean, you’re talking hundred thousand square feet buildings, just blown away and gone, some just severely damaged.
And then we started finding the homes. But, it really hit me hard—and I’ve said this about the governor—the governor was sitting immediately to my left on the helicopter, and General Holmes with the National Guard was on right, and Maria Lee, the first lady, she was sitting right across from us, and we were all looking out.
And it took an emotional toll on all of us on that helicopter ride in, that morning. And the governor didn’t really say anything to us once we started seeing the devastation as we flew in, and really even on the way back to Nashville that day, there was just a lot of silence on the helicopter. I just don’t think that any of us were prepared to see what we saw.
So, Darrell, I’m going to segue to you now, and for you to tell your story. That was Tuesday March 3, when we were actually here, and the morning after the tornado came through. Then that Saturday, Sheriff Farris provided a deputy and a side-by-side for Representative Williams, and we spent six hours on the ground. And we started out at Prosperity Point, actually where the tornado originally came in at, and your home was one of the stops that we made there that day.
And Dawson Hassler, who’s my intern, who’s running the sound for us today, he was actually one of the volunteers in your yard. And so, but from there, we immediately stopped. We saw you, and I saw Dawson there, but I’ll never forget this, as I walked up your driveway. I mean, man, you grabbed me and you just hugged me, and—because we didn’t want to hinder anyone as we went through, we just wanted to bring encouragement and hope to people. But one thing that I found is that people encouraged me and brought hope to me. But we wanted to be there and make sure that that people’s needs were getting met, but you grabbed me and you gave me a big hug and then you started telling Ryan Williams and I your story. So, I want the audience to hear your story of what you told me that day.
Mr. Jennings: Well, it’s pretty amazing to just be working in your front yard and turn around and see both of your elected representatives walking up your driveway. It’s a shock, but it definitely, to me, said these guys care. They came to the area that was hit the most and are looking in on their people. And that meant the world to me. And I saw a lot of faces over that time, really over the last three weeks, and it just really encourages the entire community. And that’s the word: Community. And that’s, with Cookeville, Putnam County has really shown that. You know, you think you live in a good place and then something like this happens and you’re blown away.
Senator Bailey: You’re overwhelmed.
Mr. Jennings: It is, it is. It’s incredible. And that’s why I said, I don’t ever want to move away. This is home. You know, and neighbors are not neighbors anymore, they’re all family. We don’t see each other without hugging, even in the midst of what we’re in the middle of right now, we still hug and show appreciation and we’d love—before we walk away, it’s man, I love you, you know? I haven’t said that to as many people as I have in the last four weeks in my entire life. Okay, to, I guess, start the timeline. You know, being a responder for 32 years, I’m that guy stays up, I storm chase, I’ve been in the middle of them for years. Everything that’s happened in 32 years firefighting, I’ve been involved with on the storm side, and I’ve gone to other areas as well when they’ve been hit. And this one, by far, is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. So, that night I don’t really go to sleep. I lay down, but I’ve got a laptop, my iPad with radar on it, I’m a geek I guess, but I’m always watching that.
My family is—they’re the, “Hey, turn that weather radio off. I’m trying to sleep.” And I’m the guy with my radio on and things, just watching because I’m always concerned about that. And yes, we’re normally blessed. When it hits Buffalo Valley, most of the time it dissipates and normally goes around us and we’re okay. This one had other plans. And so, I didn’t really see a whole lot going on, there wasn’t a definitive forecast that we were going to get severe, severe weather. But then I started hearing Nashville’s been hit. And so, I thought, wow, I want to look at that, and I started trying to get information. And that should have been my first clue, I guess because I couldn’t. I couldn’t find anything, even the internet and all the connections were either slow or not working at all at that point, so I couldn’t get anything. And then, we get the NOAA weather warning. And that was probably 15 minutes, maybe 20, prior to the touchdown.
And again, it’s kind of like the story crying wolf, you hear that so many times, you get a little, “Eh, it’s not going to be anything this time.” So, I didn’t really take it seriously. And at that point my wife said, “Can you turn that off, or down?” And I adjusted it as low as it would go. She—I’m going to throw her under the bus here a little bit, but I don’t think she’ll mind. She said—well, it could get bad, and she’s said, “Look, if it’s my time to go, I’m going to go.” And so, definitely true words and truer than we actually thought at that point. But anyway, I’m sitting there just listening, and I got the severe thunderstorm watch, and then the warning, and then tornado watch possible, and then the tornado warning. And I, again, I’ve got about 20 apps on my phone, and normally all of them are going crazy. Two. Two is all I got reports from, out of all those sources.
And then, I got the Verizon alert, the one that, you know, wakes everybody up, and I could hear the phones in the house all getting that same alert. That was seven minutes prior to the tornado hitting. And we evidently, after talking to neighbors, we got a whole lot more warning than they did. Most of them said I got it either a minute before or as the storm was hitting our house. And so, and I know that’s a timing thing, with the systems and getting that out to every phone and every geographical location, but. So, I got up, I was sitting in my chair at that point, kind of, listening and things, and I got up and just casually walked down the hallway to my back window, back door in my laundry room and I could see behind the house, Plunk Whitson. I’ve got a pretty clear view of that, even as low as we sit. And I looked out and, you know, it’s pitch black typically out there. Well, it was gray and yellow, and it wasn’t lightning striking that was giving me an occasional glimpse. It was like there was light. And I started looking and I could see the house straight in front of me on the other side of Plunk Whitson, the roof was being ripped off of it.
Senator Bailey: Oh wow.
Mr. Jennings: And I looked just to the left. And I noticed a house being completely destroyed in the storm. And it hit me at that point, oh my gosh, it’s on the ground and it's doing damage. And about that time—I was leaning against my door—I felt my door push back against me. And the wind started whistling around the weather stripping. That screeching, eerie sound and I didn’t think, I didn’t say I’ve got to do something, I jumped ten feet into my hallway, threw my daughter’s door open, and I was screaming the whole time at the top of my lungs, “Get up, get in the hallway.” That’s all I remember saying and I remember screaming it, but I could barely hear myself screaming it. That’s how loud it was.
Senator Bailey: Now people say that it sounds like a train coming through, is that—
Mr. Jennings: You know, they’ve said that. The whistle I got in the weatherstripping was similar to that but that’s not the sound when it was hitting. It was like there were—and my dad explained it best, and he lives 20 feet from me in a little apartment building and he said it sounded like there were about seven or eight military helicopters sitting on top of his building, and that was the sound. And that’s what we got, too, until the debris started hitting. And so, I got my daughter up, and we were headed—came around the doorway, and my wife was coming out, getting our two boys up, getting them in the hallway about the time I started hearing, glass breaking, and two seconds is all my daughter had to get out of bed.
Two seconds longer in my time to get to her, she wouldn’t be here because a truss piece from one of the houses came through her window and just obliterated her room with glass and debris. The bed she was laying in is absolutely covered in huge shards of glass. And so, there’s no question, you know—
Senator Bailey: And that was debris from a home that was in your—
Mr. Jennings: In the neighborhood. Yeah.
Senator Bailey: In the neighborhood. Okay.
Mr. Jennings: Yeah. And so, the kids got to the floor. I never even got down to the floor. I was still standing as it came over our house and was hitting our house and my wife was the same way, she had knelt down, and all we could hear was just debris hitting. Windows breaking. We could hear the vehicles’ glass breaking in those and just the roof being battered by everything imaginable out there. And you don’t even really think in that time. There’s not really enough time to go, this could be it, and I was still in a little bit of shock that it was hitting us. And as quickly as it came in, it was gone.
Senator Bailey: Right.
Mr. Jennings: And so—
Senator Bailey: So, it’s not a prolonged—
Mr. Jennings: It was not a prolonged.
Senator Bailey: So, you know, it’s 15, 20 seconds.
Mr. Jennings: Exactly.
Senator Bailey: It’s there and gone.
Mr. Jennings: And time seems to do odd things when you’re in the midst of that. And, I’ll talk about that in a minute as far as our house, and triage but immediately, I had—and for some reason, I went, got my phone, called 911. It was inundated. My call couldn’t even go through. So, it locked my phone up. And I had my radio on my side already, Fire Department radio, and I walked out the front door, and my kids, they tell me this afterwards. They said, “Oh no, it must be bad. Dad said a cuss word.”
Because they don’t hear that a lot from me there. And it was just, it was the most shocking thing I think I’ve ever seen. I walked out expecting debris in the front yard, I knew windows had been broken out. But an oak tree that was three foot through had fallen from my front yard to taking the lines down, and had blocked the road. My dad’s huge storage building had been blown in the middle of my driveway, and there was just all kinds of housing debris. And I looked to my right, I heard screaming, and I looked to my right and, you know, thought, “Well, I better check on the Groom’s,” and their house wasn’t there. And it’s literally 15 feet from the side of my house.
Senator Bailey: Yeah.
Mr. Jennings: And it wasn’t there at all. And I could see through where their house would be. And the Johnsons’ house was completely gone as well. And then I just looked out and more toward the left, up toward Mockingbird Hill and a flash of lightning hit, and the only thing I could see was a tree with the main limbs on it. No small limbs, no leaves, no nothing else. It’s something you see from, really, a scary movie. That’s all I could see in the distance. All of those homes that have been there for fifty-plus years were completely wiped out. And that’s when I said, “Oh my god, it’s, everything is gone.” And I immediately got on my fire department radio and identified myself, and said, I need you to send me everything you can. Everything we’ve got, because everything around me is completely destroyed.
Senator Bailey: Let me jump in there, and just ask—and back to you for just a minute, Randy. You being with EMS for so long, did our 911 system, did it get overwhelmed? Or was it able to—because I’m assuming so many people started calling 911, probably the issue would have downed power lines, downed telephone lines, downed cell phone towers, and so, that could be an issue, but was 911 inundated with just tremendous amounts of phone calls?
Mayor Porter: Oh, yeah. We got a lot of calls. The problem was is—I think they got, like, ten in the first minute. And you say, well, that’s not very many. In 60 seconds, it is. You know, it takes sometimes people a few minutes to figure out, okay, what’s happened, where am I, that kind of stuff. But yeah, we got a lot of calls, but the system continued to work, we didn’t have any issues. The only thing was the cell towers being down. So, if these folks—all of a sudden the light poles and telephone poles have been taken down, so the telephone lines were not working down there, the landlines, and then the cell towers got knocked out. So, that did hurt the number of calls that we got, but we still got plenty and thankfully we had dispatchers, extra dispatchers came in quickly and helped us answer all those.
Senator Bailey: Now so, Darrell, back to you then. You had gone out, and this was part of the story that you told me that day in your driveway, you realized that your neighbor’s homes were gone, you’d looked around and noticed that a lot of the homes in your neighborhood were totally gone. You heard people screaming, and at what point in time did your neighbor start bringing people to your home?
Mr. Jennings: Immediately.
Senator Bailey: Immediately.
Mr. Jennings: Yeah.
Senator Bailey: And they knew that because—
Mr. Jennings: I don’t know. You know, I think divine intervention would be the answer. I would give that, because, again, it was pitch black at that point, and that silence that Randy described earlier, that’s—when I walked outside, in under a minute after it hit, there was no sound whatsoever. I couldn’t hear the tornado going on toward Cookeville, I heard nothing but dead silence. And it was like someone turned a switch on, and the screams started. And I’ll never forget that sound. And my wife had walked out on the front porch at that point, and we both had flashlights, and when we heard the screams, we just started shining a lot toward our neighbor’s house. You know, we couldn’t see anybody. And I watched them walk down their front steps, because the only thing left, the only thing left was their floor. It was like nobody ever built walls on the house. And they walked—
Senator Bailey: And that floor had been twisted off of the original foundation.
Mr. Jennings: It had.
Mr. Jennings: Yeah, you could see where it had started peeling it away. In the Johnson’s house, which is next door to them, the floor system was already gone. It took it during the tornado. Of course, they were a little closer to the center of the storm. But, in the section that was being peeled away, that you’re talking about was the section that the family was on. They were in the middle of that section of floor on a piece of carpet in the closet. And, and so we started flashing lights and they started—they said can we come to your house? And I’m like, “Of course, yes. Come in.” And so they walked over, and then the Johnsons saw us flashing light.
They did the same thing, they came in, and then it just started. I was in my front yard talking to dispatch, kind of giving a size up of what I was seeing outside and this huge wide truck rolls up and gets to where the tree is down and he realizes he can’t go anywhere. And people are screaming inside that truck and they started jumping out, “Please God, can you help me?” And so, I’m 15, 20 feet away and I walk down to the ditch and that’s when we started getting our patients I will say the neighbors from Hensley Drive, Luke Carty, who was driving the truck, had gotten his truck loose from a trailer that had been flipped over and just started, he and his wife started picking up people that were wandering out of their rubble, and people were handing their babies to them, handing their babies because they couldn’t get out, and they couldn’t go anywhere, and they felt like he was going to be able to get them to the hospital to get care.
And when they got in front of my house, the people that were with him started coming out, and saying we need help. And then I just kind of—again, it wasn’t a decision I made, it just came naturally to start triaging, if you will, looking to see what the injuries were, what the level were. And the first person I saw was Hattie. And I, of course, I checked for a pulse, I checked for breathing, you know, sternal rub, just trying to get any response and there was nothing.
Senator Bailey: And the gentleman had brought her to you, and he had just bought this pickup like a week—
Mr. Jennings: Saturday.
Senator Bailey: Saturday—
Mr. Jennings: Saturday. Four days before the storm.
Senator Bailey: —in his brand new pickup and it basically destroyed—because he was trying to bring people to you for you to be able to administer CPR. He tried to get out of the neighborhood and
Mr. Jennings: He tried to get out of the neighborhood, and there was a house in the middle of the road where he couldn’t drive through. And so, he turned around, and drove through his yard, across the fence, across trees, another house of debris, he drove over to get to, I think it was, Hensley Court, had to drive through debris, through there to get out and came around. And he said, “I was headed to the hospital.” I don’t care what I encountered. I was going to the hospital that morning, and he got as far as he could and stopped.
And so, everybody started getting out of his vehicle. And we had Harper was the next one that I saw. She’s still in ICU in Knoxville, praise God, she is getting good reports every day. But she had a severe head injury and was not responsive at all. And I think it was Harper’s little brother was next. A little lethargic, I think, shocked. And so, we just told him I said, “Go, my wife’s on the front porch, go up to her, and we’ll get you inside.” And we had another family that had been trapped and got out. She had severe leg and hip injuries, and they stayed in the vehicle because he was going to try to get them to an ambulance. And we didn’t even know at that point where that was going to be.
Senator Bailey: So, and I think you told the story that you ultimately moved to the church. The church wasn’t—it had some damage, but it was still usable.
Mr. Jennings: It was okay, yeah.
Senator Bailey: It was okay. So, because so many people were coming to your home, you needed to have another location. So, you moved there to the church. And so, how much time passed before EMTs started arriving there, and being able to administer medical help to these people? How much time from when you set up your triage center from your house, then moved it to the church, that you were—
Mr. Jennings: That’s that relative time I was talking about earlier. Because it seems like—that, to my wife and I, we felt like it was 15, 20 minutes. And it turns out that before we cleared our home, it was an hour and 24 minutes, I think, which really shocked me. I really thought that that had happened a lot quicker. But we had started moving them a little before that. The babies and things and for me, that’s the amazing part of what happened. You know you have kids, you think the world of your kids, and I’ve spent a decent amount of time kind of complaining about children these days and just being focused on their electronics, and not being relative to the things going on in life and I’ll never say that again because I watched my children go from my daughter nearly being taken from me and going through a direct hit, to caring for these children.
They held these babies in their arms, helped cut clothes off of them, to dry them off, to get them warm, to calm them down, to get them to where they weren’t screaming and upset, to when we got the triage open, my kids on their own, took these babies in their arms and walked them nearly, it’s just under a quarter-mile to the church, through all of the debris, past things that thank God they didn’t see, and took those babies and handed them off to the medics that were at the church, and came back. And, that to me, that stood out. For them to step up to the plate and do that just amazes me. I don’t question our youth in any way anymore. And I’m not down on them. They just hadn’t taken initiative Before that. And these are the same kids who went to their closets, pulled out every pair of shoes they had, they pulled out their sweatshirts, and they gave them to the people that came in. We had twenty-f—
Senator Bailey: Right because a lot of people probably just had their pajamas on, didn’t have any clothes on.
Mr. Jennings: Yeah. Yeah.
Senator Bailey: And so, they—and everything’s—there’s nothing there for them to put on. There’s no shoes, there’s no clothes and I don’t think people realize that is that you’re literally in bed. And so, unless you have your pajamas on, you have nothing, so. Sheriff, you obviously, were responding, your deputies were responding, you’re hearing a lot of what Darrell’s talking about, trying to get your personnel into those areas. And it’s frustrating.
Sheriff Farris: It is a little frustrating. You know, we’re dealing with the downed power lines and trying to keep people from—the individuals that’s sort of in shock walking around, we’re trying to get them staying put, and rendering first aid, or get them to a place like Darrell’s or someone that we can get first aid until the ambulance gets there or whatever, and then trying to search and rescue and secure the area as well. A tornado is bad enough, we certainly didn’t need anything on top of that. So, that was our priority, to try to get things calmed down, and the area secured. And that was hard to do when it was hard to have any boundaries there. So yes, it was a little frustrating for sure.
Senator Bailey: It was also unbelievable the amount of volunteers, we talked about that earlier, that had mobilized in such a short period of time, from all over the region. All over the region all over the Upper Cumberland, volunteer firemen, you had EMS workers. I mean, it was just unbelievable, the response that we witnessed here in the Upper Cumberland and here in Putnam County. There was a fund set up. Mayor Porter, is that fund still operational? Or has it been closed down? Can you just—
Mayor Porter: No, still operational. That’s Cookeville Putnam County Tornado Relief Fund. We set it up at the Bank of Putnam County. Simply the fact that we already had a disaster recovery fund from the ice storm. So, we use that same account. Bank of Putnam County has 18, 19 locations, so we thought that’d be the easiest. As of today, we’ve got about 1.5 million has been donated to the fund, which is unbelievable, Senator. Money coming from all different places. We had Food City in East Tennessee, brought us a check for $391,000.
Senator Bailey: That is unbelievable.
Mayor Porter: And that’s just where they allowed their customers to add a dollar or two or ten or whatever, to the grocery bill in all their 110 or 20 stores. So, the fund is still there. We set up a special committee. Dr. Bob Bell is chairman of that committee with a lot of good folks from our community. They’re working to start next week, trying to get that money out to folks. So, hopefully, things will work fast and 100 percent of the fund goes to those survivors, not a penny of it goes to the city or county or anyplace else, it’s all going to go to the survivors and the victims of the tornado.
Senator Bailey: And if someone wants to make a donation, how did they do that today?
Mayor Porter: They can go to our website at putnamcountytn.gov. When you hit the main page of our website, you’ll see it right in front of you, then click on it. They can use your credit card, they can do PayPal, there’s several different ways they can do it. Or they can take a check or cash by any of the Bank of Putnam County locations, and they’ll take it for them.
Senator Bailey: Great. Well, gentlemen, before we close out, is there any last thoughts or comments that you’d like to make to our listening audience in regards to what you experienced that day and…
Sheriff Farris: I’d just like to make one comment. We were talking about all the volunteer help. Now normally on a scene like this, and certainly that’s what we call it is a scene, especially the first 24 hours, it is a scene that needs to be secured. And we tried to do that but based on the terrain and all the debris, and all that that was going on, plus, we knew we still had victims out there. So, based on all that, the mayor and I decided that we needed volunteer help, because even though our law enforcement and rescue and fire we’re used to seeing death, but, most of the time, that’s one or two at a time. And here we saw 18 in just a matter of just a few hours, but it was critical that we get people out there, even though we knew there might be some trauma involved, to help us search for those victims or potential victims that we might could save. So, that was the key right there.
Mayor Porter: I knew we lived in a great community before this. It’s the reason that Darrell, and Eddie, and all of us, we made this our home. But after seeing the outpouring of love and support, and volunteerism, and financial, I mean, the whole thing—we had over 6000 people just from Putnam County that came out and volunteered to help—it made me realize what an awesome community we live in. Our community is just unbelievable and as tragic as this was, the outpouring of love and support is just unbelievable and they are just not words to express my appreciation to the citizens of our county for everything they done. It was a terrible event, but we all came together, and we survived it, we’ll recover, and we will rebuild.
Senator Bailey: Absolutely, I’ve been saying that we are Tennessee, we are the volunteer state, we will overcome, and we’ll build back bigger and better than what we were. Darrell, any last parting thoughts?
Mr. Jennings: As I’ve said several times, to folks, I’m very used to being on the other side of disasters like this. I’m in with all the other rescuers and going to people and it was very odd, very different being on the affected side and not being able to get away really and help other people. You know, I spent all of Tuesday searching rubble and helping to pull folks out, so I got to do that a little bit, but from the survivor, from the affected side, the thing I will say is how well everybody came together. You probably will have people who were not happy with one thing or the other, but for the folks I’ve talked to, everybody was well impressed with the response, with how things, kind of, coordinated and the volunteers that came in to help out. And just, again, what the community did and how they pulled together to help and support those of us who were affected.
Senator Bailey: Well, gentlemen, we’ve got a lot of heroes in our community. And we are who we are. And that’s Tennesseans, Putnam Countyeans Cookevilleans. And so, and we’re also the Upper Cumberland. Thank you, Sheriff Ferris. Thank you, Darrell Jennings, and thank you, Mayor Porter, for being with us today. This is state Senator Paul Bailey with Backroads and Backstories Thank you for listening.
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