NASHVILLE — My husband and I would’ve slept through the tornado that hit Nashville in the middle of the night last week, but our nocturnal middle son woke us up to say his phone had just issued a tornado warning. The wind was hardly blowing.
True, it was unseasonably warm for early March. And in winter, warm temperatures often herald storms. But earlier in the evening the National Weather Service had calculated the likelihood of severe weather during the night as “a slight risk,” with a 2 percent chance of tornadoes within 25 miles of Nashville. We got up anyway.
My husband turned on a local news channel. I opened Twitter and pulled up Nashville Severe Weather (@NashSevereWx), this town’s go-to source for up-to-the-minute information on changing weather in the area. Here is the first tweet I saw:
Confirmed tornado northwest of Downtown Nashville. TAKE COVER NOW IF YOU ARE IN DAVIDSON, WILSON, OR SUMNER COUNTIES!
— NWS Nashville (@NWSNashville) March 3, 2020
Shortly after that, Sam Shamburger, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Nashville, tweeted a video of the tornado moving through downtown, just north of the Tennessee State Capitol.
I watched that video over and over again, trying to understand what I was seeing with my own eyes and yet not seeing at all: Six miles away, people were being thrown from their beds, thrown from their homes. Windows were exploding, walls were collapsing, roofs were carried away into the sky, enormous trees were being wrenched from the ground. None of it was touching me. Hardly a leaf stirred in my yard. How was it possible for something so monstrous and so nearby to be, at the same time, so utterly invisible?
By first light, the true scope of the tragedy was already becoming clear: whole swaths of the city — neighborhoods and schools and businesses and churches — ground into rubble. Twenty-five people across the region, almost all of them in the Cookeville area, where the monster twister reached a magnitude of EF-4, were killed in their sleep. Among the dead were young and old, well-off and poor.
It’s pointless to rank suffering. Loss is always loss. Grief is always grief. Tornadoes aren’t worse than hurricanes or flash floods or wildfires. But tornadoes are unique among natural disasters in the pure randomness of their destruction. They can slam one house to splinters and leave teacups untouched on the kitchen table next door. They can hopscotch around a city, reaching down here and there, unpredictably, like a malevolent finger rubbing out an ant. It’s the arbitrariness of the destruction, as much as its shocking power, that makes a tornado so fearsome. We don’t deserve the suffering it brings. We cannot protect ourselves against it.
Photos and drone videos from last week’s tornadoes reveal exactly what you expect them to reveal. People picking through piles of debris, people embracing, people bowing their heads in prayer. Row after row of apartments and cottages, their facades peeled away like a shadowbox, opening to full view the private lives that unfolded within. The floral sheets. The brass chandeliers. The Formica countertops. The flat-screen televisions. It’s impossible not to feel a tenderness for the lives of those strangers, an urge to tiptoe up and pull the door closed, to unsee what we were never meant to see, to give them back their secrets.
Perhaps that’s why Nashville has responded to the wreckage by urgently pitching in. All across this city, people are showing up to help friends and strangers. They are showing up with work gloves and chain saws and garbage bags and tarps. They are making casseroles by the dozens and sandwiches by the hundreds. They are making repeat trips to big-box stores for flashlights and batteries and blankets and nonperishable food and baby formula and diapers and tampons and hand wipes and over-the-counter medicines, and then they are giving it all away.
Some of this is happening through the expert efforts of existing community organizations like Hands On Nashville, Gideon’s Army, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and the Community Resource Center Nashville. Some of it is happening organically, by word of mouth (or word of media), as people hear from somebody who knows somebody who needs help. Some of it is happening because people keep just showing up and looking around for an opportunity to help — so, so many people that it can sometimes become a problem for power crews with heavy equipment trying to get through.
And what would Music City be without a benefit concert or 10? Or a plan to help get musicians themselves back on their feet? People who can’t help in person are donating to the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund or GoFundMe campaigns that now routinely top their target goals. All by herself, Taylor Swift gave $1 million to tornado relief.
None of this is surprising. This is what Southerners, what all rural communities, are famous for. The response to Middle Tennessee’s tornadoes is simply a barn-raising in the city, the death-in-the-family casserole and the Sunday second collection writ large. Like all emotional states, compassion is infectious.
The day after the tornadoes, I was texting with a friend of mine who moved to Middle Tennessee from Bay St. Louis, Miss. Her family had made it through Hurricane Katrina, a calamity that happened on a far larger scale, but making comparisons wasn’t what was on her mind. “Louis and I now talk about the ‘private Katrina’ our friends might have: cancer, death of a child, you name it. One day the sun is shining and all is intact, the next day everything is broken. And the rest of the world goes on. You’re trapped in your own crazy snow globe that’s been shaken so hard all the pieces fly loose.”
This is a truth we all instinctively recognize. That random funnel cloud of death and destruction could have happened anywhere — it could come for any of us any time. And while we understand that we have not been singled out by God for survival, we also understand that we can be God’s hands here in the rubble, helping our neighbors dig out.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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