COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It’s been six months since one of the deadliest tornadoes to hit Tennessee killed 24 people and caused more than $1.5 billion in damage.
The road to recovery has been long, but residents in the hard-hit Putnam County say they have a new outlook on life.
Joyce Wilson, 75, had just moved to Cookeville from Florida two months before the EF-4 tornado hit.
“I could hear this loud engine noise, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know,’ and then all of a sudden, it approached, coming at me, and I could hear it getting louder and louder, and I said ‘Oh dear God, this is the real thing,'” Wilson recalled.
She said she ran to yell to her son upstairs, but within seconds, the stairs flew off the house.
“The next thing I remember, I was lodged under the house, and I was crooked in it. I couldn’t turn my head, but I did have this part of my hand free, so I wedged it up, and it was only up to my wrist that you could see,” Wilson described. “I was just terrified down there ’cause I couldn’t get up.”
As thunder, lightning and rain continued, her son held on to her hand, and a police officer who lived nearby was able to hold on to her foot.
With several broken ribs and a broken pelvis, Wilson said she asked them not to leave her until help came.
“I really thought my life was coming to an end,” she explained.
It was hours before emergency crews could get through the debris into the neighborhood.
“They found a door and they laid me on that door and they carried me through the field over to this gray house and they knocked on the door and asked if they would let us come in,” said Wilson.
Several people were taken to that house to wait for ambulances.
“The worst tragedy to hit out county in modern history with the EF-4 tornado,” Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter. “We had about 700 homes damaged, 100 people injured that had to be taken to the hospital and then 19 lives that were lost.”
Wilson spent more than a week in the hospital.
“Right before I left the hospital, the doctors came in and gave me news,” Wilson said. “They said they found something.”
What they found was a large mass in her chest that needed to be surgically removed.
“The bottom problem with this is it will get so big it will strangle your heart, and I’ll die that way. But if the tornado never came, I would’ve never known it was there,” said Wilson, who had the mass removed.
Wilson and her son returned to the lot where she originally lived to inquire about rebuilding but found it is only zoned for a two-story home, which she said she can never live in again.
A local contractor traded her lots and is helping her build a one-story home down the street. She said she’s looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas in it.
Even her two dogs, who went missing in the tornado, were recovered. One was found at the local animal rescue, and the other was just a puppy found two days later in his crate that had barely survived in the debris.
“For God to bring us through this and then to bring me through this,” she said, “I just feel like we’re walking miracles, and I can’t express to people, it’s a new look on life, and you just, you just feel so blessed.”