COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On the anniversary of the most devastating tornado in Putnam County history, Mayor Randy Porter reflects on the sheer destruction.
"Those images, they're there [in my mind] forever," he said. "I remember flying in the helicopter that morning looking at the scene thinking 'there's no way anyone could have survived this.'"
Nineteen people in Putnam County were killed. Eighty-seven others were injured. The EF4 tornado that tore through was the seventh, and strongest, out of a string of 10 tornadoes that impacted Middle Tennessee after midnight on March 3, 2020.
Porter blames the fact that cell towers had been knocked out in Nashville and Wilson County for the lack of warnings before the storms hit in the middle of the night. He urges residents to purchase weather radios as a backup for future storms. Porter said while the area appears to be getting back to normal, the lingering effects of storm anxiety remain.
"It was easy not to pay attention to those warnings before, but I assure you, now, everyone does. And even some of those folks that live in those areas that have built back, there's still a fear there of 'what if this happens again,' and we just pray it doesn’t," Porter said.
But he says in the wake of tragedy, the community pulled together like never before. People from all over contributed more than $2 million to the tornado relief fund to help survivors rebuild.
"We live in a great community and they really came together. Things have returned to normal as much as it possibly could," Porter said.
Six hundred homes were impacted by the tornadoes in Putnam County, with 170 destroyed. Now, Porter estimates that two years later, 70% of the homes have been rebuilt. Though a housing boom and labor shortage have created some delays.
"There's still several [homeowners] out there that want to rebuild that haven’t been able to," he said.
Later this month, the county will dedicate Hope Park, which includes a green space, playground and pavilion to honor the lives lost. It has risen from the rubble like the others, built on three lots where homes were destroyed on McBroom Chapel Road.
"It's just going to be a nice green space, park for the children and the neighbors that live around the park," Porter said. "A lot of them, their homes have been destroyed and they had to build back. It’s a place for them to go and be able to just relax and enjoy the area."
The park will have a plaque thanking donors, but will purposely not detail the tragedy. A full memorial is planned for the former Patton House Doll Museum, one of the only county buildings that was destroyed. Porter says details on what it will include have not been finalized.
Even in the wake of the loss, he's still aware of how lucky the community was. His aerial tour of the damage showed him that first-hand.
"The pilot just sat there and hovered and we were looking straight at our hospital and Tennessee Tech University, had it kept going. So it could’ve been worse. As bad as it was, it could’ve been worse," he said.
When asked if there was any help still needed, Porter said no. In fact, Putnam County residents came together to raise nearly $240,000 for survivors of the Kentucky tornadoes that impacted Mayfield and Bowling Green in December. County leaders plan to present their neighbors in Kentucky with the monetary donation in the coming weeks.
"We knew what they were going through," Porter said.