Tornado relief efforts at the damaged Engine 14 Station. Photo by Travis Commeau

Need is Our Neighbor

dedicated to the memory of Michael William Dolfini & Albree Sexton
Essay by Chuck Allen | Reported & Photographed by Natasha & Travis Commeau

The twister capriciously made its way into the East Side during the wee hours of Tuesday, March 3, 2020, as if it were a thief in the night following the path of an evening commuter. Having first destroyed John C. Tune airport, it sliced its way through North Nashville and Germantown before hopping the Cumberland River for the fifth time just south of the Jefferson Street bridge.

Unsated and growing in strength as it went, with only 10 minutes having elapsed since its birth around 12:35 a.m. at the far western edge of Metro Nashville near River Road, the tornado continued on a nearly true eastward path, which took it up Main Street and over to Woodland — the stretch where it became deadly, and then just to the south of Five Points. Roughly following Holly Street as it tore through Lockeland Springs, it pushed onward, crossing Shelby Park and Riverside Drive and into the Barclay Drive neighborhood, then on through Shelby Bottoms.

Again it met the river, leaving as it came, and proceeded to rip a path through Donelson and beyond, until it drew its last breath over 50 miles away in Smith County after having been on the ground for nearly an hour.

The neighborhood, the entire city, went into crisis mode even before dawn. By Tuesday afternoon hundreds of people had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to help those directly affected begin picking up the pieces. There are so many stories to tell and be told of the humanity, the outpouring of love, and a community coming together in the aftermath of tragedy.

These are but a few.

Anja and John D’Angelo
Anja and John D’Angelo had just moved into the neighborhood about two months ago.

I love the story of resilience that you hear over and over again from Nashville, but I also think we should — I’ll probably tear up —  we should not minimize the fact that it sucks. That I’m really hurt, and … if you keep hearing ‘resilient’ you feel you’re not allowed to feel sad, and scared, and overwhelmed with what’s going on. So, I love that story, but I feel sometimes like I need to be ashamed that I still feel really bad that I’m alive, and our house is still there. I feel like that’s really important for people to hear.

—Anja D’Angelo

"We were up and awake when it happened,” Ben Piñon recalls. “The woman directly across the street from us — when we got out at 2:30 in the morning just to look and see what was going on, we heard her yelling for help. Her elderly, bedridden mother was there. They had holes in the roof and all the windows were blown out, so she was panicking and afraid that the house was going to fall and she wouldn’t be able to get out. So we and some other people helped get her into a wheelchair and took her five houses down until her granddaughter could come pick her up from another part of Nashville. “After that, you don’t get much sleep.”

An Americorp member with Hands On Nashville, Piñon said so many volunteers spontaneously showed up over the course of the next few days they never needed backup from HON shuttles.

"Been out here for about 2 hours. And I’m not physically able to do a lot because of broken ankles, but I know about nails. ... I’ve been able to find some things that should get back to owners.”

Schwab is pictured with her magnetic broom, holding a child’s drawing she found amongst the rubble.

(Clockwise from top left) Melanie, John, Killian, & Damien Cochran

I want to thank everyone, first of all. This community’s been incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I will never leave. You know, we often talk about, like ‘Well, it’d be nice to live by the beach,’ but after this there’s no way we could ever leave. Just having that support system and just love from everybody. It’s amazing and I feel like it’s pretty unique. So I appreciate everybody tremendously.

—Wild Cow founder Melanie Cochran. The Cochran home in the Barclay Drive neighborhood was a total loss.

Melanie: “I feel like the alerts that we got on our phones saved our lives — definitely his [Damien]. Because his room — I hate to say that in front of him, but his room was completely obliterated. His bed, everything. And we got those alarms on our phone three minutes before it hit, so just in time. And we were sleeping, so if that didn’t happen, things would have been different. But we were able to get them out of their rooms and go down stairs. So I’m really grateful for those alarms … that was literally a
life saver.”

John: “We were in the basement for less than a minute when the house imploded. I closed the basement door and almost instantly… just an explosion. But everyone walked out without a bruise or a scrape. We lost the house, but everyone was untouched. That’s all that matters.”

Melanie (regarding The Wild Cow): “There was a little bit of damage on the patio, the heater came down, nothing major, but still no power. So all of our staff is still without employment at the moment. Keep them in your minds as well. There’s a lot of people that don’t have work right now.”

John: “Just, ‘Thanks’ to the whole community. Every stranger that showed up is a new friend.”

Melanie: “People were so thoughtful about food – there were places that
had vegan food. To even think about that is incredible, we’re just really appreciative. Tremendously. Everybody’s help and support — and just random hugs from people we don’t even know. It’s amazing.”

"An army marches on its stomach, right? Somebody’s got to be out here keeping everyone fed." —Jason Kennedy

Boyd & Susan McClean, and Jason Kennedy started making hamburgers on the corner of Brittany and Lazenby, trading off when one couldn’t be there and working together when everyone could. They estimate having cooked up several hundred meals for the other volunteers.

Jack and Brittany Hendrickson, live in “one of the houses that was spared and felt like it was important to come out and help out our community clean up and rebuild.” Brittany broke her finger helping earlier in the day, but came back out nonetheless.

Brett Withers, District 6 Councilmember

I just want to thank all the amazing volunteers for coming out and coming together. East Nashville, from the beginning, has been exporting goods and services to other parts of town that need it more than we do, and I’m really proud of that.

—Brett Withers, District 6 Councilmember

CM Withers, photographed in front of the historic firehall housing Engine Co. 14 next to Bass Park in Lockeland Springs, posted to Facebook around the time this picture was taken on Sunday, March 8: “Apparently Metro’s roofing contractor decided that the building was not salvageable and wouldn’t tarp it. We wouldn’t let it go. I went to Codes to get permission from volunteers to tarp it. Fred Zahn from Historic has been working on this building all day yesterday and today. Mayor Cooper joined me here this morning after the East End UMC service and ordered the departments to get it done. I’m not going home until it is.”

Sarah Lester and Sara Olivia Moore, employees at Five Points Pizza. (The owners continued paying their employees while the East Nashville location was closed.) Sarah was there when the tornado came through: “It happened so fast. The warning came through at 12:36; by 12:46 I was already calling my brother to make sure he was OK. Said and done in 10 minutes.”

Shawn Visco and Dave Puncochar

I thought I was fine. My kids had mentioned that up above the carport were our Christmas ornaments and my daughter was like, ‘Dad, what about our ornaments?’ and I said, ‘Oh honey, I don’t know,’ because the carport collapsed and everything was in a pile. I had gone to my counseling session and I felt like it was really helpful… and sure enough, I thought I was fine, and these volunteers came and we found all the Christmas ornaments and I started bawling and I was like, ‘Ok, I guess I’m not Ok.’

—Dave Puncochar, owner of Good Wood

“When it all happened, we were all panicked and just trying to get in the bathroom, running with bare feet on broken glass. So I must have slept until it hit my house. And I was really thankful for my old 1950s bathroom where the tile’s like three inches thick and the tub’s steel. So I put the kids in there. There’s no window, it was our safe spot.

“Outdoor furniture had flown into the house, my big picture windows were all blown out, my journal is actually gone. Somebody somewhere has found my private journal.

“One of the things that was sweet was that when I first knew it was safe to come out is when I heard voices out in the yard and it was neighbors checking on other neighbors. You’re so bewildered that you don’t know what to do. Insurance can’t get out to everybody that quick, so it was really nice having people come in where some people knew what to do. Just so many neighbors helping so many people.

“I’m in the front yard and there’s a girl named Abby who’s helping clean up my house and that night, Shawn and I were like ‘we need to get away, let’s go to Green Pheasant’ and we’re at the bar… and Abby is behind the bar. I’m like, ‘I can’t even comprehend how small this world is.

“The feeling of all these people over the years. All the relationships we have, so many people, just coming out. And each day is a new layer of work. The first day is just shock and ‘let’s move out,’ and then it’s big trees, then it’s ‘Oh, we left all these trees,’ and all this glass in the grass.

“The volunteerism has been amazing. And every time I’m tempted to tell people ‘Don’t go to my house there’s nothing to do’ — if I show up there’s so much to do. It’s actually overwhelming.

“Some stranger found a picture of my daughter, the oldest, an ultrasound. On day two I went over there and there was a brown bag of debris and in it was a picture [of] me as an eight year old. It was in Atlanta when we we moving here, and my dad had bought me a Tennessee shirt. … I don’t know, it was really meaningful to me.”

"The charm of East Nashville might be replaced with the glitter of New Na$hville, but the familiar faces of The 5 Spot crew will still be here for you with cheap drinks and killer live music."

—Todd Sherwood, co-owner along with
Travis Collinsworth of The 5 Spot

“The 5 Spot was extremely lucky. All we lost was the power pole and some minor roof damage. Power is still not on after a week, but we are optimistic. “We are a small business that provides a living for 20 people. Those 20 people are all intertwined in the web of neighborhood small businesses that we lost. When we needed new staff, I walked over to Hunt Supply to ask if anyone needed work. Our bartender lives with The High Garden staff. The majority being musicians, they played shows at The Basement East. They got tattoos from Gold Club. I skated at Asphalt Beach during work breaks. We all supported the local businesses that are no longer there.”

(L-R) Trisha Brantley, with Alanna Royale and Jared Colby, pictured on the steps behind The Hip Zipper.

I ask anyone to please get out and support ANY small independent business offering a service or product. We’re all looking for places to exhale.

—Trisha Brantley, owner of The Hip Zipper

“We were without power for a week at my store. I may be faced with closing my shop as a result.

“Our future is just as uncertain as someone trying to figure out how to rebuild. If I can’t pay bills, I’m in jeopardy of losing my vehicle or home too. Perhaps not immediately, but rather in a few months.

“Whether it happens in a quick, painful manner or slow and painfully, tragedy and loss are relative to the one experiencing it.

“I absolutely don’t intend to compare or minimize anyone’s misfortune, because some of my friends and neighbors have experienced immediate, unthinkable loss in the form of damage to residences or their brick and mortar stores. People have lost memories and possessions they won’t get back.

“Many have insurance and may take that money and either relocate or rebuild.  I’ve seen gofundme accounts for a lot of them, which is so inspiring and heartwarming.

“Some businesses also have more than one location. Perhaps they are able to relocate misplaced employees to other locations and redirect customers to their other locations.

“Others, like me, with single small businesses who weren’t demolished but have been unable to operate since the tornado struck are suffering the slow and impending threat of total loss because we are also unable to make a living.”