As a 74-year-old retired United Methodist elder still serving a rural church, the Rev. Jackie Wheeler has seen people through a lot of crises.
Now he’s dealing with one of his own.
Wheeler choked up describing how a tornado that tore through Putnam County, Tennessee, destroyed his home and the other buildings on his four-acre farm, just outside the county seat of Cookeville. He survived by hunkering down in a bedroom closet, but later in the exhausting and emotional day had a bad fall requiring 16 stitches.
Much worse was hearing an insurance agent declare a total loss the home his parents built in 1958. His father nailed many of the boards as main carpenter, and Wheeler has lived there on and off for 62 years.
“I’m taking one hour at a time. That’s all I can do,” Wheeler said by phone on March 5. “The Lord saw me through it, and he’ll see me through the rest of it. It’s going to be very difficult.”
News from Putnam County, 80 miles east of Nashville, was slower in coming, due to the extent of tornado devastation there, and to loss of power and phone connections.
“It was sobering to realize how few pastors I could reach,” said the Rev. Donna Parramore, superintendent of the Caney Fork River District of the Tennessee Conference, which includes Putnam County. “We didn’t have cell service for the majority of that day (March 3).”
By late the next day, authorities reported that of the two dozen or more deaths associated with the storms, 18 had occurred in Putnam County.
United Methodist congregations there are dealing with some of those losses.
At Gainesboro First United Methodist Church, a member’s grown daughter was among those killed. Another woman, who was well known to the church and spoke there last year as a graduate of a drug rehabilitation program, lost her 6-year-old son.
Dunavant went to a temporary morgue with the church member whose daughter was killed. He’s been thinking ahead to the sermon he’ll preach Sunday.
“I am not one to ever change my sermon based on current events, but I don’t see how I cannot do that this week,” he said.
The Rev. Tommy Harris, pastor of Zion Hill United Methodist Church, and his wife, Robbie, had two family members and a close friend among the fatalities.
Harris spoke about the tragedy at a March 4 church service.
“We need to trust God and just know that he’s with us in these times,” Harris said is his continuing word to congregants.
Cookeville United Methodist Church reported that among its members, one family of five suffered injuries in the tornado and lost their home.
“We are actively caring for them and seeking temporary housing,” said the Rev. Kevin Conrad, pastor.
Albert Willis, pastor of Algood United Methodist Church, got a call from his daughter and son-in-law soon after the tornado struck.
“‘Can you come get us? We have nothing,’” Willis recalled his son-in-law saying. “Their whole house was obliterated. They have four children. Just a horrific night for them, but they got out alive.”
United Methodist churches in and near Putnam County appear to have escaped major property damage, Parramore said, though assessments continue.
Volunteer response to the disaster has been strong, and United Methodists have been part of that, with First United Methodist Church of Cookeville deploying a trained disaster response team right away.
“The chaos of the initial shock is starting to clear and the city, county and state are starting to organize relief efforts,” said Conrad. “The outpouring of goods, services and funds is absolutely amazing.”
The Rev. Robert Craig, disaster response coordinator for the Nashville Episcopal Area, confirmed that United Methodist teams trained by the United Methodist Committee on Relief have made a difference already, helping with debris removal, covering house damage with tarps and other mitigation tasks.