BY JASMINE WILLIAMS
I have to say that even after everything, my parents and I were the luckiest people I think after the storm passed.
But in order to tell the story of what happened during the storm, I need to go back a little to the beginning of the day, one I will never forget.
My mother hadn’t been feeling very good for the past few days and the night before had been the Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. After the party I had went to Poppi’s, which was becoming a weekly tradition, to eat some pizza. I chatted with Jennifer Washburn and all the ladies who were working that night and overall had a nice end to the Thursday. Waking up Friday, my mother Tammy was still not feeling well, and I told her she really needed to get tested for the flu because it sounded a lot like that to me. After eating breakfast, I went to work at the Dresden Enterprise. The day was pretty uneventful, chatting with Sabrina the editor and my coworker Laura about the upcoming Christmas section. We were working on the Weakley County School System ad because of all the pictures and cutlines; it was just normal, run-of-the-mill graphic design work for me.
Around lunchtime my mom called me to say she did in fact have the flu. I talked to Sabrina about this, but I didn’t feel bad at all, and I knew I had a lot of work with the Christmas section so close, I decided to stay the rest of the day and work. We had chatted some about the storm and I remember thinking that if it did get really bad, my parents and I could come up to the Enterprise office and stay in the back room. I thought this was a good idea because of all the concrete bricks that were back there; it would seem like a safe idea. But I wasn’t sure it would be that bad. But by the time 4 o’clock came and I stepped outside, I had a bad gut feeling.
Not really that the world was ending, but more, I felt something was coming. Just the air temperature and the clouds put me on edge for some reason. I cannot explain it. I really feel when I have gut feelings about someone or something I am mostly right, so I have learned to listen to it. So, I rushed home, to 220 East Maple Street. Not even a two-minute drive from my office, maybe even shorter. I saw my mom on the front porch walking in with my many potted plants I had. I like growing plants and find a real peace with having plants, but we brought them into the house when we felt the weather may be bad. So, I went from my car to the front porch and talked to my mom, helping bring in plants and talking about the storm.
Because of this bad feeling I was getting I had asked my mom if maybe we should leave to go somewhere safer if we see the weather get bad. She didn’t feel it would be really bad and that if it did, we were in a brick house and could hide in the hallway. I remember specifically asking if I could move our old concrete birdbaths, that are older than I am, to our backyard shed. JUST IN CASE, something bad happened, they wouldn’t break. But my mom told me that I could just take the tops off and that would be enough. But I kept pushing, asking if I could just lay the holder down too. But my mom kept saying that it would be fine. She didn’t feel well because of the flu and didn’t think it would be a big deal.
Before I could even get into the house, my parents wanted to move the cars around were theirs was in the back and mine was in the front. So that if we needed to leave, us three and our two dogs would all fit. This plan as it would turn out, didn’t work the way we thought for reasons I will get to.
I ate the leftover Poppi’s Pizza, which was so good, I had really fallen in love with Poppi’s recently from eating there occasionally to weekly, to treat myself for each paper being finished or the end of the week coming. My parents ate just some chicken noodle soup since they didn’t feel practically great or up for cooking.
I don’t remember much of that evening. We had tried to watch Alec Baldwin I think, talking about the movie-set shooting, but the news kept breaking in with tornado warnings and alerts for bad weather. As the night went on, I felt more and more on edge. I know I took an earlier-than-normal shower while my mom asked me to set some clothes and shoes beside my bed, in case I needed to get changed in a hurry.
I went to bed early, hoping if I could just fall asleep it would all be okay, that my gut was just the nerves with the weather. There wasn’t really anything near us. This was maybe 8:30. I can tell you I couldn’t fall asleep, so I just looked for something that would keep my attention a bit. I watched for the first time that night “Deadpool,” which was okay; it kept me awake. By the time that ended, I was so restless I literally flossed my teeth before finally watching the weather with my parents and just saying I felt so restless. I think that this was about 10ish.We could see that there was a big storm south of us, that was hitting different communities that seemed to be on track to hit Martin. As we were watching the weather, I kept getting that feeling that we should get out. Go to Gleason where we have family, go to the Enterprise, I just knew something was coming. At 11 p.m., I can give a good time stamp. Both of my parents agreed that the storm was going to split Martin and Dresden and that it was okay. My mom went outside to smoke, and my dad Randy went on the front porch to see if he could watch the storm. An important thing about my dad, he loves storm watching and he cannot hear well at all. I stayed inside and kept watching. At about 11:01 p.m., I watched as the storm on the radar turned towards us. I knew it wasn’t going to split us. I literally ran, getting blankets and pillows in the hallway, the dog beds in the hallway. At this point, I ran outside and yelled to my dad to come inside the house. He yelled he would in a minute.
At 11:03 p.m., I know this for a fact, my phone made its last connected call for December 10, 2021, to my mom. I called to her saying that the storm moved and was coming towards us. I remember when I was calling her that I was grabbing water and bread and dragging it all into the hallway. My thinking was that if the house fell in, and we were trapped in the hallway, we would have bread and water to eat while we waited to be saved. The call to my mom lasted exactly 14 seconds. Unbeknownst to me, while my mother was outside smoking, the porch underneath her feet was vibrating.
She came in and went to the hallway, she had a plastic reusable bottle she set on a shelf in the hallway and sat on the floor.
At this point, I ran back outside and yelled at my dad that the storm was coming towards us, and he needed to get in. The wind now was blowing so loudly that I could barely hear myself. I wasn’t even sure if he could hear me until he turned around and looked at me. I am not even sure if he said anything, the wind was making sounds I had never heard before.
I ran back into the house, and I turned my phone on the weather to watch a live update on the storm and then the power went out. My dad finally came back into the house, and I couldn’t get my phone to reconnect to the live steam of the weather. My mom and I were touching arms, sitting together, with our smallest dog squeezed in-between us and pushed into the door behind us some for safe keeping. Our Golden retriever was so big we just had him in front of us. My dad was on his phone in the living room, and I kept yelling at him to come into the hallway; I never spoke to my dad that way. He came into the hallway, with only a couple of small flashlights lighting up the hallway. The wind was still blowing loud, and we just waited. And then, a tornado hit my house.
It is important to know the layout of the house some before I continue. Our hallway wasn’t a normal hallway. It was more like a small box with doorways to almost every room there. The doorways to the living room and kitchen didn’t have doors. My bedroom, the bathroom, and my parents’ room had doors, which I had closed them all.
When the storm hit, it was so loud, I could hear the house above me being ripped apart, which made a sound that I wouldn’t expect. It sounded like wood breaking and wind blowing. It didn’t sound much different then a wood-chipper or the sound a tree makes when someone tears a small branch off a tree, but louder and longer. It felt like it went on for about 15 minutes.
All the while my mom was screaming, “Oh God” on repeat, I was actually quiet. I ducked down and had my head in mom’s lap, but I felt wind around me and I ended up being pulled about a foot away from my mom. I, at one point, tried to get closer to my mom, but I could not move. The wind was sucking that much.
When it hit, windows breaking was one of the first noises I heard. A quick thought was that “windows, we can fix windows.”
When it hit, my mom was screaming to God.
When it hit, my dad threw himself over my mom and I to protect us.
When it hit, a small brown leaf landed beside me, I know because my phone’s flashlight was on and I saw it.
When it hit, the roof of our house was taken off, everything was so loud.
But also, when it hit, something incredible happened to me.
Some may not believe the next part. But it is the honest to God truth of what happened. It is truth everything was so loud when it first started, but as it continued. It felt like my eyes began to see things more vividly, the blues and greens of the clothing and blankets and pillows beside me became brighter and so much more colorful. I felt I was seeing a picture painted with the most vivid colors. It seemed like the noise became more and more quiet, even though it was so loud. And I noticed that there was a mantra in my head on repeat, “You will not die. You will not die.” Over and over again.
That was weird? I think all the time. When I think, I always go like, “I wish I had a million dollars” or “I love this dress on me.” Never did I think out of the first person. But this was saying, “You will not die.” As if someone was speaking to me. And plus, it sounded like a man speaking with a somewhat deep, but not too deep, voice, “you will not die.”
And the voice kept saying it. It seemed that it was getting louder and louder, and it seemed to become a chant that more and more people were saying. It sounded like a whole crowd was inside my head all just calmly saying, “You will not die.” But the lead voice, this man, He was more commanding, as if I needed to believe it, I needed to know in my soul that night was not the end for me, and for my family. You will not die.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but the vivid colors and the chanting. I know who that man was, who those people were. It was God and his angels all telling me I would not die. So, I sat there in the hallway, with the chanting in my head and the colors so beautiful and vivid.
I felt at peace, in the middle of a tornado, I wasn’t going to die, it would be okay. One way or another it would be.
And then it all stopped. All the wind, my mom screaming, the voices, it all stopped. It was just raining so heavy and loudly. And then I felt water. I looked up, expecting to see the sky, but the ceiling was still there. There was water raining down on top of all of us, it was so heavy we all quickly got up to take assessment of everything. I thought that maybe our roof had its metal and shingles blown off and that was why it was leaking. But the water was in every single room, raining down. While the storm hit, all three doors that were closed before had flung open. There was water in the kitchen which was where I ended up. I remember gagging as if I would throw up. I am pretty sure we all went into shock after the hit.
My parents then pushed me and the dogs into the bathroom and closed the door and asked me to stay put. I started recording with my phone just in case something else happened, when they found us, they could see the videos and know what happened. I kept doing this throughout the night.
I could barely breath and had water filling up our light fixtures and our bathtub, I yelled at my parents to come out. I didn’t hear anything back, so I came out to see what was going on. I then saw that my parents were at our front door, the porch roof had fallen, and the front door was blocked, our neighbor whose house was not damaged badly, ran to our house to see if he could help us. My parents then went to the side door and saw that it could be opened but that there were power lines and what looked to be a metal piece from the top of a power pole over the side door. My parents were scared to try and get out that way because we were not sure if the lines still had any charge. The back door was also blocked, as about seven big trees fell in our yard and blocked the back door.
We were trapped.
My dad, who was determined to get a way out, took a leap of faith, against my mom and I’s wishes and walked outside. My mom turned around, I remember, in case the lines electrocuted him. He was okay, but what he was shocked by what he saw outside. He just kept saying that the trees fell on his motorcycle shed, where his bike was. Saying that it was crushed. That he could all the way to the large Methodist church probably because all of the houses behind us looked flattened. He came back in, when our neighbor said that the driveway seemed clear enough, that we could properly get out if we wanted to, he left to check on our other neighbors.
When I peeked my head out the door, it was just like my dad said, all the trees were flattened to the ground and it didn’t look like there were any houses behind us anymore. We went back into the house and tried to find a good place to stay to gather ourselves. We went into my bedroom because it was the only room in the entire house that didn’t have water coming down in it. We brought the dogs there and tried to just think of a game plan. I wanted to get in the cars and get out of the house because I was afraid that if we stayed there much longer the ceiling would fall in. Eventually my parents left the room, my dad went to try and help clear the cars so that we could get out of the driveway and my mom started to gather stuff she knew we would need. In the meantime, I stayed in my room and laid down on my bed. I had changed into my clothes I had set out for this situation and just laid there waiting for the ceiling to fall in on me.
Then I started to smell gas. My parents didn’t want to leave the house just yet and I started yelling at them that I could smell gas.
They said they couldn’t smell it, so they kept on working to get medicine and jewelry and stuff into the cars. This was when the ceiling started to fall in. Every now and again, there would be wet plops. The ceiling had insulation, which was getting wet and was weighing down on our tiled ceilings, so tiles were falling down throughout the house which freaked the dogs out a lot. While also in my room, I could hear things outside. One of the most prominent things that I heard was a man calling for help in the dark. I tried to get my mom to watch the dogs so that I could go out and help but they didn’t want me to get hurt so they left me with the dogs. When my parents could finally smell it, I was so dizzy and felt so tired that my parents finally told me to get the dogs. We put their leashes on and my parents took the biggest one to their car and I took our smaller dog with me.
I sat in the car for a while, my dad was trying to get our gas turned off to make sure that the house didn’t blow up. He couldn’t get the gas cut off, though because someone had painted over it. Finally, when our road was cleared enough for vehicles to start driving down it, a fire truck came by and even they were not able to get the gas off.
A cousin of mine who works at the gas company came and turned the gas off for us. So now, we were sort of ready to go, my parents needed one more thing out of the house. My mom asked me to go back into the house and get my dad’s coat for them. When I went back in, the ceiling was falling very fast, and a large section fell almost on top of me. I ended up running out of the house and cut my thumb very deeply on a piece of metal on my way out. It was our only injury of the night.
It should also be said that throughout all of this, I was calling 911 almost constantly, but the calls would never connect.
We finally left the house. I was able to see that a car had flipped in front of a neighbor’s house, who we were all good friends with. We did find out that she was okay before we left. But there were a lot of different people who were walking up and down the street. There were emergency vehicles everywhere and power lines down all over the street. I could also see that our house seemed to have gotten the worst of it.
We started towards the Enterprise, but found that the roof had caved in. So, we drove to the Baptist Church on Morrow Street so that we could let the dogs go potty and us think of where we needed to go next. Somehow, while we were in the parking lot, my phone started ringing and I started getting messages on my phone again from worried friends and coworkers. My boss Sabrina had tried to call me, but there was only a small area of the parking lot with a signal. It was not until 3:34 a.m. on December 11 that I was able to make the first call to connect to my boss. I told her what had happened and then I got messages from my coworker Laura asking where I was, saying her husband was coming to Dresden to find us. When I called Laura at 3:43 a.m., I was able to tell her where we were and that I would follow him to her house. My parents didn’t want to go with them, because they wanted to stay at the house and keep watch on any looters who may be out. Which it turned out, there was plenty of that night and going forward for weeks.
When I got to Laura and her husband’s house, I fell asleep on their couch with my small dog Casper in my lap. I ended up moving to a bed and maybe around 4 or 5 a.m. I was able to get the first proper nap since I had fallen asleep Thursday night. This was Saturday morning.
When I ended up coming back into Dresden, the damage was devastating. My office was gone. My house was gone. So many homes were gone, along with so many businesses, that thanks to my time with the Enterprise, I knew many of the owners and workers very well. It was devastating. But, we were all alive. We were getting word through the grapevine that it seemed like no one was dead so far early Saturday morning. It was the most uplifting news. I remember keeping my cool as much as possible because I knew that there was so much work to do, where would we sleep? Get clothes washed? Take care of our dogs? There was so much to do that I was determined to stay strong until I could finally get some rest and have a moment to myself.
We had lived at 220 East Maple St. for about six or so years. The house needed so much work. I remember sanding the window frames, working to get the smell of cat pee out of the house. My parents worked so hard on the house. I remember that on my 16th birthday, I painted my room because I wanted to so much. I graduated high school, got my associate’s degree, and my bachelor’s degree just earlier in 2021. It was the house that I went home to from work and that I felt we would be at for a very long time. Now it is all gone, being torn down a few months ago.
In the weeks that passed, we were helped and met so many wonderful people who have done nothing but try to make our lives as easy as it can be, considering everything.
My parents slept in their car for what felt like forever to watch for looters, who they would see rummage through other properties. Coming to my room at the Days Inn in Martin to take showers.
Now we have a house that we are currently working on, the same way we worked on 220 East Maple St. We lost a lot of things, mainly to me, all of our old Christmas ornaments that I had made in Elementary school and had been gifts from long-dead family members. But we didn’t lose our family photo albums, which had pictures that go back to the 40s. We were able to come together as a family with so many aunts, uncles, and cousins coming out of the woodwork to help us. We are so blessed despite everything that has happened.
We still have each other and soon we will have a beautiful house and a nice neighborhood, still in Dresden because we cannot see any other place we could call home, where I hope my parents can happily stay for a very long time.
I want to thank all of the strangers and family and friends who have helped us out during this time because there are so many people in the community who we do not even know that came up into our yard and asked what we needed them to do and they did it. They never complained or tried to get money or possessions out of us. It shows that Dresden is full of some of the best people.
Neighbors who are ready to pull up their sleeves and help at a moment’s notice.
Jasmine A. Williams
Formally of 220 East Maple Street, Dresden, Tennessee