I had just come home from a west coast Poco show in Modesto, CA late the night before, and got up to go to work on Monday – so I was tired, but I stayed up in front of my computer screen writing anyway. Danny had been asleep for a couple hours already by then, and I was uploading photos from my phone onto my laptop and replying to messages. It had been raining, and there’d been quite a bit of lightning as I was considering calling it a night.
But when the alerts went off simultaneously on the phones, I picked mine up to see a tornado warning on my screen.
As I was opening Twitter to scan the Nashville Severe Weather account, I heard the siren go off – the one that blares on the first Saturday of every month at noon, the one that we’re all so collectively accustomed to ignoring.
But…the phone…the siren…and the ominous feed from Twitter were conspiring to relay a pretty sinister message.
Shit was about to get real.
I don’t know that we even debated going to the basement, I just said that I’d go get Danny out of bed…that might’ve been the comic highlight of the night: waking up a ten year old after midnight to tell him that we were going to the basement. He didn’t verbally ask if I’d been drinking, but the expression on his face as it sank in that I’d jolted him from a deep sleep to report to the basement in the middle of the night…that kinda said it in so many words.
When we went downstairs, Carley (Dylan’s girlfriend) was still awake as well – she actually had the window open in their basement apartment, and it was immediately creepy to me how still it was outside, considering what I’d observed for most of the night.
This was real. This was happening.
We were hiding in the basement underneath a tornado that was sweeping across our neighborhood, ripping houses open, depositing the splinters of houses it had already destroyed into other people’s yards, tearing open buildings, leaving dumpsters in the middle of the street, and ripping down electrical poles and tearing power lines loose and leaving them lying in the street.
My work phone began dinging with alerts of various network circuits around the city falling silent – most notably among them a job at ground zero of the tornados’ path in Germantown.
When the damage was done, some six hundred of those poles would fall to the ground (compared to less than 200 in the 1998 tornado), and a path of destruction from Bordeaux and Germantown, North Nashville across our East Nashville neighborhood and through FivePoints and literally right down Main Street – then east to Mount Juliet and off to Cookeville, where the death toll was highest.
Over two dozen people were dead, more physically injured…and even more left to pick up the pieces of what had been a relatively normal life on an average Monday night that was no different than most others – until it was.
Not yet knowing any of this, we came back upstairs to bed – all three of us in the master bedroom where we slept somewhat fitfully, drifting off and then waking up at the slightest sound or flash of light that might indicate that it wasn’t over yet – when the sun came up, our house on Rosebank Avenue, near Cornelia Fort Airpark, looked exactly as it would have on the first Tuesday of a given month – our trash cans were still standing upright and unmolested on the curb, waiting for pickup.
But less than a mile away, a lot of our neighbors had it much worse than we did.
My daughter Jayda, who was my hero long before any of this happened, was on the other end of the phone via text when everything took place on Monday night. But while we tried to sleep to prepare for the next day, Jayda assembled a bunch of her co-workers from Margot Cafe (one of the pillars of the Five Points neighborhood) and marched down there within an hour of the storm to assess the damage – and they stayed there for several hours, cleaning up debris and commisserating with their co-workers – and, in Jayda’s words, “walking around the streets in shock, feeling like we were in a war zone.”
Social media reacted quickly, as did Nashville – word spread to stay off the streets, to make room for emergency vehicles…when I fell asleep a few hours before, I had no real idea of the extent of the damage.
Not long after we crawled out of bed, the picture became much clearer…and quickly.
I got out of bed shortly after 7am, and came straight into my office and booted up my work laptop and logged onto the VPN so I could start assessing our situation – Wendy was scrolling through photos from her Facebook and Twitter feed, and the bleakness of the aftermath was already pretty apparent. The most public beating fell onto Five Points, home to Jayda’s Margot, Five Points Pizza, the bike shop, Fanny’s House of Music, Burger Up, Woodland Wine, and – heartbreakingly, the historic Woodland Sound Studios…the historic room where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their landmark “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, among others. Woodland had suffered some extensive damage during the 1998 tornado, and there was litigation in the aftermath of that storm, over 20 years ago, that almost resulted in erasing its existence. But it was eventually resurrected by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and was open and operational when this tornado swept through last week.
Woodland lost most of its roof in this tornado, but the building and its walls remained intact – and, in Jayda’s words, “Woodland probably saved the building where Margot stands…if that building wasn’t there, Margot might be gone.”
Both my work and personal phones got a serious workout – folks from all over the country were checking on us to make sure we were ok, and as we were reporting to everyone else that we’d survived intact, with no damage or injury, the news was beginning to come in from the neighborhood as to the extent of how badly our neighbors had been hit.
Survivor Guilt – it’s a thing.
I worked mostly from my desk on Tuesday, taking phone calls and going through the motions in something of a daze as I started monitoring the extent of what was happening only a mile or so up Rosebank Avenue or up Porter Road from where I was sitting.
The rest of the week, I ended up in the car – both going to the office and checking on jobsites to survey the extent of the damage. As of this writing, almost a week later, one of our sites is still without internet service and has resorted to using hotspots on their individual mobile phones to work. Still, folks are waiting for electricity, waiting for water – when the sun goes down, entire neighborhoods fall dark.
No streetlights, no traffic signals, no light emanating from the houses that line the streets. Just an eerie, unsettling quiet.
But the folks in these neighborhoods have outpaced the municipal tradesmen and utility workers in their work to restore their town.
Volunteers who’ve shown up in town have been driving up and down the streets of affected neighborhoods with messages scrawled on their vehicles, offering tools, chainsaws, food and water – streets have been cleared by the townsfolk while the authorities waited for municipal workers to get to some of the streets in outlying areas.
Jayda and her co-workers at Margot hosted a neighborhood cookout roughly 48 hours after the tornado came through – she’d been working almost straight through to help folks dig out from under the damage, and she was there that afternoon to help with getting set up for the event. I brought her Danny’s bass amp to use to play music through for the party, and she was a sight to behold – her eyes were tired, but she was a whirlwind. There were HUNDREDS of people in the street, standing and talking to one another in the midst of random wires and shards of glass, downed transformers and the tops of poles lying in the parking lot of the convenience store at one corner of the Five Points intersection that gives that part of the neighborhood its name.
I stayed long enough to say hello to some of the folks that I hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving and to behold the miracle of humanity that is Jayda’s Margot community – and what they were able to give to their neighbors, their customers, and their friends in a dark moment of collective vulnerability.
And this was ONE moment that I saw with my own two eyes, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this was repeated time and time again in the aftermath of a random tear in the fabric of mother nature only days ago.
This city has, out of necessity, built an emotional exoskeleton that has survived floods and tornadoes out of its own stubborn southern willpower.
Nashville rebuilt in 1998.
It rebuilt again in 2011.
It is rebuilding – yet again – as we speak.
I don’t know that living through this week has made Nashville “home” to me…I’ve come to somewhat uneasy terms with the fact that my own personal notion of “home” will likely elude me for the rest of my life at this point. I don’t say this from a place of sadness…I’m a wanderer. I was born this way, and it’s who I am.
But witnessing this has given me cause to feel part of something that’s bigger than me.
Exchanging texts, offering refrigerator space to musician buddies who live a few streets away, picking up and dropping off stuff for folks – it’s what I’ve been able to do between showing up for work, navigating jobsites, and finding my way home to hide from the world when the sun goes down.
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself in the midst of all this.
Watching footage of things like this on the news is a temporary shock in a way that probably only exists for generations of the past half century or so. We see footage on the evening news of a flood like Joplin, Missouri or a hurricane on the scale of Andrew or Katrina or good old Superstorm Sandy (which we lived through in the Philadelphia suburbs – I stayed up all night while Wendy and Danny slept to keep watch, and didn’t even hear the giant tree in our back yard in Havertown splinter and fall to the ground…some sentinel I am) – we see these things as they happen, and they vanish as our attention span banishes them to make room for the next thing that demands our attention.
We consider the death toll, we peruse the images and mourn the dead, we consider the factors around the event (in the case of something like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing), but they seldom impact us personally in the same way that something like what’s taken place here, this week, will if it ever happens to you.
Why, you might ask?
How would it come to pass that something like the 9/11 bombings might be less impactful, less consequential than a tornado in a random southern town?
Because we live here.
Because this city is where we live and die, laugh and cry, live out the days of our lives.
The houses where we spent random afternoons are now broken.
There are landmarks that we drove by every day on the way to work or school or church that have been erased.
And there’s no commercial break, no remote to reach for to change the channel.
The Music City Cleaners building just off Rosa Parks? Very nearly leveled.
And it’ll still be shattered tomorrow when you drive past it.
And the next day…and the day after that.
And they may rebuild it, but it’s not coming back – not the way it was.
That’s where the real shock to our systems sets in.
Looking around us at the things we’re confronted with in these situations only serves to drive home the realization that everything around us sits on shifting sands.
In normal times, that can be easy to ignore…but in times of crisis, it’s impossible to ignore.
So – here we all sit, among the ruins of what existed only a few days ago, taking stock of our blessings and considering the basic notion of how fortunate we are to still be here, to be among those who are rebuilding as opposed to those who’ve lost so much more than we have.
But there are warriors and fighters among us who refuse to let us slip away, and Nashville is once again availing itself of the opportunity to lift one another up – and it’s a miracle to behold.
I was born and raised in Tennessee, and turned my back on it as a young man.
I went out into the world and set down roots elsewhere – I started a family a thousand miles from where I was born.
I reinvented myself and left this chapter out of the identity I created within my adopted circumstances.
But I sure am proud of this city tonight.