By Sarah Haston, TCEcD
Economic Development Director | City of Lebanon
For the first time in his adult life, Lebanon Assistant Fire Chief Nick McCorkle sheltered in a closet with his wife in their home as a violent storm swept through his Westview Acres neighborhood. Minutes after the storm passed, he was dressed and attempting to assess the damage, first to his house, then to his neighbors, then to the whole area.
William Glover, the public safety officer for the Lebanon Police Department, heard the alert on his radio after midnight – and like he does for any perceived emergency service, he headed toward the police headquarters. He had to pull under a canopy at a gasoline station as he neared Highway 109 as the wind and rain pushed through the city around 1:30 a.m. on March 3.
Lebanon’s engineering services director, Regina Santana, was attending a conference in Dallas, Texas, on behalf of the City of Lebanon, and was awakened in her hotel room by her daughter-in-law, calling to tell her that an EF4 tornado with winds exceeding 150 miles per hour had just raged through Lebanon. She cancelled her plans and booked the first flight out of Dallas the next morning.
McCorkle and Glover and their first responder colleagues, aided by Jeff Baines, Commissioner of Public Works, General Services Director Lee Clark, and his team, worked through the night and into the next night. Santana was on site by early afternoon, and they all proceeded to be key players in the near miraculous search, rescue, and restoration response that unified the city and exemplified the spirit of volunteerism by residents and kind-hearted strangers alike. All three long-time Lebanon residents and city employees worked tirelessly through the next two weeks to help bring some semblance of normalcy to the city as it reeled in the aftermath of the deadly storm. And all give credit to the entire community.
“The quick action by first responders, other city employees, residents, volunteers from other police and fire departments, and thousands of volunteers from near and far is a great point of pride for me,” said Mayor Bernie Ash. “It was grueling, exhausting work, and a great example of what communities can do when they work together, and I am exceptionally proud of the City of Lebanon employees.”
McCorkle’s home sustained what he called minor damages, but the homes of neighbors two blocks away were leveled. Glover knows several members of his church whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Santana’s home was spared, but her grandmother’s house was heavily damaged. All knew someone who suffered from the tornado.
“As terrible as the damage was, we were lucky the storm hit in the middle of the night when most people were not at work. The number of injuries and possibly deaths would have been much higher if it had been in the day,” the 20-plus year veteran of the Lebanon Fire Department said.
The trip to Fire Station #4, which usually takes McCorkle 6 to 7 minutes, took 45 minutes. Power lines were down, trees blocked roadways, the Eastgate area was devastated, a fire there was reported, and an injured tenant of one of the many destroyed businesses was rescued and taken to the nearest ambulance in the fire chief ’s pick-up truck.
“We’re used to dealing with chaos, but I have never experienced anything like this,” he said. “Radios went out; we had two firefighters take off on foot to help clear a path into the area. “We went business to business, house to house that first night along Leeville Pike and Eastgate Blvd.
McCorkle said Lee Clark and Lebanon’s public works crews, along with Middle Tennessee Electric teams, were instrumental in the initial clearing of downed trees, power lines and debris. And he praised City Garage workers for setting up shop at Station #4 where they changed damaged tires on local and neighboring fire department fire engines.
“The fire chief decided to open up a big bay at the Administration Office to accept donations. There were an unbelievable amount of donated supplies, from food and water to cleaning supplies every day and we were able to saturate the area with these items over the next two weeks.” Glover’s role, working from the police department’s mobile command center since power was out at the main headquarters, was helping make sure people were safe the first day, and then to coordinate the huge volunteer response. “We had more than 400 the first day and from Wednesday through Sunday a total of 3,500 showed up to help.
“Regina and I worked extremely well together. We wanted everything to be as smooth as possible.
Glover said Highland Heights Church of Christ on North Cumberland still had power, and immediately agreed to provide shelter to displaced residents. And he praised local businesses in the surrounding area which then sent food and supplies.
“Police Chief Mike Justice, LPD Command staff, Officers and dispatchers worked tirelessly for our community. Police officers from other communities, driving their marked patrol cars and wearing their uniforms, assisted with traffic, and worked intersections around the clock. Firefighters and their equipment were dispatched from Hendersonville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Franklin, Brentwood and even the Millersville Volunteer Fire Department,” Glover said.
He also lauded Lebanon’s C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team) for the 500 hours of volunteer service 20 of its members logged.
“The outpouring of love was amazing. Everyone was tired, but the thing that kept me going was the love of our community. It made you so proud to be from Lebanon,” Glover said.
“From the time I received that phone call in Dallas, it was an emotional roller coaster. When you see so many people hurting, you wanted to do so much,” Santana said.
She set out moving through the city, helping to identify areas where volunteers could make a difference.
“People, our neighbors, showed up in force with gloves, chain saws, skid steers, tractors, trailers, back hoes, knucklebooms, dump trucks, rakes, shovels, food, hugs, prayers and lots and lots of love,” she said.
Her team also helped assess property damages for use in receiving aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and volunteered on weekends identifying downed power lines, potential traffic snags, and with debris removal.
Santana praised Glover’s role in helping coordinate the response. “For two weeks, he stayed calm and cool. He was a great leader.”
“Just to see the impact of what the volunteers were able to do was unbelievable,” she said.
She echoed what her colleagues said when asked how they kept the steady pace for two weeks.
“How did I keep going? I got home, fell into bed, couldn’t sleep. Kept thinking…all these people who need help. All these people who want help,” she said.
“After working here for 24 years, I know a lot of the people who work here. Some I’ve worked with closely over the years and others not so much. One thing I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt is that there isn’t a group of people I’d rather go to war with than the ones who pulled together when the tornado hit and the days that followed. This group worked in sync as if we had hand in hand on a daily basis for years, “Santana said.