Cookeville responds in neighbors’ time of need

Echo Valley Drive in Cookeville was one of the hardest hit areas when a deadly tornado ripped through Putnam County on Tuesday, March 3. Volunteers have been busy sorting through the damage and cleaning up. A volunteer checks the second floor of a home that was blown across the street. Photos by Andy Telli

As soon as the deadly tornadoes passed through the area west of Cookeville on Tuesday, March 3, neighbors started reaching out to help each other.

“Everybody was pitching in,” and checking to make sure their neighbors had survived the tornado and were all right, said Dan Bernosky, a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville, whose street, Charlton Square, was one the hardest hit.

In the hours and days that followed the tornado that claimed the lives of 19 people in Putnam County, the hardest hit area in the state, the people of Cookeville, Putnam County and the surrounding area mobilized to provide comfort to those suffering the most. They helped neighbors clear away the debris, repair damaged homes, recover family photos and heirlooms from the rubble, and provided food, clothing and shelter for people who lost nearly everything.

“To me the community’s response is a message of hope,” said Ray Holbrook, a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. “People from all corners of the county and outside the county have responded. The hands and feet of Jesus are being extended to us from all areas of the country.”

When those organizing the response asked volunteers to come to the old Hobby Lobby store to receive an assignment, 2,500 people showed up, said Chris Koerber, a St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner and Grand Knight of Knights of Columbus Council 6645 at the parish.

Contractors were helping people repair holes punched in their houses by flying debris and put tarps on their roofs at no cost, Koerber said. 

“The response from the Cookeville community is overwhelming,” he said.

Parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas joined countless other religious congregations and other groups and organizations in offering to help.

The parish is serving as a sorting center for clothes donated for the tornado survivors.

The donated clothes are brought to the parish where volunteers from St. Thomas Aquinas and other churches, sort the men’s, women’s, girls’ and boys’ clothes by size, explained Helen Marie Kulis, a parishioner and member of the Daughters of Isabella Circle 1414 at St. Thomas Aquinas.

Once the clothes are sorted, they are brought to the Serenity Thrift Shop in Cookeville, where they are distributed to tornado survivors, Kulis said.

The response has been huge. Trash bags full of donated clothes have been piled up in the sorting room. “It was overwhelming people being generous,” Kulis said. “Samaritan’s Purse put the word out that we needed help sorting the clothes, and I had 75 people here Friday sorting.”

“The connections we have are so strong, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Holbrook, who retired in 2005 after a long career as the director of financial aid Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville.

Holbrook is serving as a liaison between St. Thomas Aquinas and First Baptist Church in Cookeville, which is one of the centers of the relief response.

“People are letting themselves be the hands and feet of Christ,” Holbrook said. “It’s so evident, it’s real, it’s tangible.

“We know what’s behind it is the power and strength and the comfort of Jesus Christ,” he added.

Parish organizations like the Knights of Columbus at the Daughters of Isabella have also jumped into aiding the relief. And the State Council of the Knights is also providing help.

State Deputy Mike McCusker put out a call to councils across the state to donate money to aid the relief efforts in Cookeville, Nashville and Wilson County areas that were hit by the tornadoes. He also asked his fellow state deputies from around the country to help.

“In the first 24 hours, we raised about $20,000,” McCusker said. The Supreme Council of the Knights has also committed to helping, but is awaiting a full assessment of the needs, he said.

“My worry is after the immediate response, the attention will waver, which is human nature,” McCusker said. “We’re taking a long-term view. This is a marathon not a sprint.”

By the end of the month, the Knights should have a better idea of how much money they have available and the needs of parishes and individual parishioners, McCusker said.

In the meantime, Knights have been among those helping on the ground.

“I was very impressed in Cookeville because they had organized such a quick response and were so organized,” said McCusker, who visited Cookeville and Nashville on Saturday, March 7, to see the damage and the relief efforts.

“People quickly offered assistance,” he said, noting the help the Knights were also providing to the Church of the Assumption in Nashville, which sustained significant damage from the tornado, and the East Nashville and Mt. Juliet communities. 

Volunteers Kaine Gifford, left, and Allyson Thompson recover a family photo  found in the rubble.

“Travelling up and down I-40 and seeing where the tornado had come down near Lebanon, that was heartbreaking,” McCusker said.

‘I thank God’

The night the tornado swept through Tennessee, Bernosky and his wife, Johnette, were sleeping fitfully. Their dog Ruger kept trying to wake them up to let him out, he said.

Then their phones went off with an emergency alert, Bernosky said. “I was kind of wondering if it was a good alert,” he said, but his wife was adamant they find shelter.

He was putting on a pair of pants when he heard the tornado approaching. “You could hear the train,” Bernosky said. “You heard that roar and that rumble.”

“I grabbed some pillows and went into the laundry room. We held on with pillows over our heads,” he said, as they listened to the house shaking and glass breaking. “As fast as it came, it went.”

Bernosky, who retired to Cookeville about 12 years ago after serving with the Florida Highway Patrol for 34 years, went outside to check on his house, which only sustained minor damage. He then saw the devastation the tornado had left on his street, Charlton Square.

“The devastation you see you wouldn’t know anybody made it,” Bernosky said. “It’s in God’s hands that anyone survived this storm.”

During a long career in law enforcement, Bernosky had seen many tragedies, including hurricanes and fatal car wrecks. But this tornado had an impact those other events hadn’t, he said.

“I’ve been through so many of these tragedies, but they never were personal,” Bernosky said. “We’re all lucky and I thank God every day that we made it.”

“That’s the third tornado that’s come through our neighborhood,” Bernosky said. “I hope this is the last.”

‘It’s devastating’

Just over half a mile from Bernosky’s home, St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Jessie Greene, her 7-month-old daughter Josephine, and her mother Tea Stockton, were huddled in a closet of her home at the end of Echo Valley Drive.

“As soon as we shut the door it got real loud,” Greene said. “It doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. 

“Me and my mom were both praying very loudly,” while her daughter calmly reached up to touch her mother’s face. “It lasted like 30 seconds but it felt like forever.”

When the tornado passed, Greene called her husband Sam, who was in Dallas for a business trip. “She was afraid the house was going to fall in on her,” said Sam Greene, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 6645.

The tornado skirted by the Green’s home, which had only slight damage. It wasn’t until the next morning that they realized the extent of the devastation suffered by their neighbors down the street who took a direct hit.

“We had no idea it was something catastrophic for the people just a few doors down the street,” Jessie Greene said. Kitchen items from nearby homes were lying in the cul-de-sac in front of the Greene’s home, and “metal and nails were everywhere,” Mrs. Greene said.

Down the road, “there was a house in the middle of the street,” she said.

Sam Greene was getting a clearer picture of the tornado’s aftermath as more and more family and friends checked with him to make sure he and his family were safe.

Co-workers who live down the street from him told him stories of being sucked out of their homes and finding themselves lying in the backyard after the tornado passed.

“It’s devastating up there,” Sam Greene said. “I can’t imagine that being us.”

‘How much good is happening’

The tornados that swept across the state claimed the lives of 25 people, 19 of them in Putnam County. 

Although none of those killed or hurt were parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas, several families lost their homes, said Beatriz Alvarez, the parish secretary.

The parish is still trying to complete a list of parishioners affected by the storm, she said.

The recovery will take a long time to complete, Holbrook said. “In these situations we don’t have to solve every problem today … but know this is a long standing issue.”

But the response so far has been heartwarming, he said. “How joyous it is to see how much good is happening in this situation.”