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The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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“I can’t say enough about them:” Clarksville tornado brings community members together for disaster relief

After an EF3 tornado tore through Clarksville, Tennessee, on Saturday, Dec. 9, killing three people and injuring dozens more, its residents were left to pick up the pieces.

Various piles of debris lay on the lawn of a home on Jackie Lorraine Drive following a storm that devastated the neighborhood Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Dominique Martinez-Powell | @dmartinez_powell.photography)

“Once I opened the door, I saw that this entire wall had collapsed on my bed, and I could literally see Dollar General through the wall space,” Clarksville resident Sheryl McCoy said.

The sign of the Dollar General across the street is visible through the home of Sheryl McCoy after a tornado destroyed her home the day prior Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

Sheryl McCoy’s house on Tylertown Road stood on a small area less than a mile long between Interstate 24 and the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When a tornado blew by on its way into Tennessee, it destroyed much of the right side of the house, including the roof of the building.

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McCoy and her daughter were babysitting when the storm struck, and they hid in the bathroom on the West side of the house.

“I jumped up, and I ran in the bathroom after them,” she said. “By the time I got in there, the drywall from the ceiling had collapsed on my daughter and in the tub. When I looked up, the whole roof was gone.”

Although the other side of the house was destroyed in the storm, McCoy and her family were mostly protected from the impact by the Dollar General across the street.

“What I do know is, Dollar General kinda took the blunt for that side of the house, which is why more is still standing over there. And I want to say it just came this way and just ravaged this side. Because this is the garage,” McCoy said, gesturing to an area on the right side where the front wall had collapsed.

The next day, McCoy would spend most of the day going through her home to pick out what was salvageable, be it necessary or sentimental.

“Trying to figure out what’s absolutely needed and what I can just, you know, not take with me, just starting over,” McCoy said. “…It’s getting dark so early, so I wanted to get what I could now so we can get back, you know – I’m at my cousin’s house – to a safe environment.”

Fortunately, McCoy wasn’t alone in the cleanup efforts. Neighbors, family members and members of her sorority came by to help aid in both gathering things and distributing supplies as needed.

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Having just recently bought the house, McCoy had barely gotten a chance to meet the people on her block. However, after the tornado struck, the neighborhood rallied together.

“I don’t know these people, but the neighbors everywhere was like, ‘if you need a place to lay your head. What do you need? Let us know.’ The lady down there where we sat at her home, she came over this morning and told me if I needed anything to let her know. So, the neighbors rallied together and was just like ‘whatever you need.’ Another lady came over here and stocked us up with water and gave us hot chocolate and PopTarts, which was amazing,” McCoy said. “I can’t say enough about them.”

Sheryl McCoy is surrounded by friends and family to help her clean up and move after half her home was destroyed in the previous day by a tornado that swept through the area Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

Among those who came by to help was McCoy’s younger brother James, who flew in on Sunday morning from Chicago with his nephew Darius Taylor. They had wanted to fly down as soon as the tornado happened, but had to wait until 1 a.m. the next morning in order to get a flight to nearby Nashville, Tennessee.

“We flew in from Chicago, Illinois, around 7 o’clock this morning,” Taylor said. “And we’ve been out here helping ever since.”

James McCoy described the emotions he felt once he arrived in Clarksville, where he and Taylor surveyed the damage to the home before visiting his sister and niece.

“Just overall, the feeling was just fear,” James McCoy said. “Once we knew that they were safe, I think one of the hardest things as a brother is to hear your sister crying and saying ‘everything’s gone.’”

Sheryl McCoy goes through family photos that she was able to save from the wreckage of her home Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Dominique Martinez-Powell | @dmartinez_powell.photography)

Taylor said, “Honestly, it’s devastating. I’m just happy that my auntie and my cousin made it out alive. But, you know, taking a look at the houses, it’s kinda like unbelievable that they made it. I don’t know if people believe in a high power, but this makes me believe in one much more.”

Like his sister, James McCoy recognized the power that a sense of community held in bringing a positive impact to such a devastating situation.

“Overall, things can be replaced, people can’t. And so, it’s going to be a lengthy process, but… it just shows how in times of crisis, a community can come together,” he said.  

Elsewhere in Clarksville, that same rallying effect could be seen in various neighborhoods hit by the tornado. One such place was at the corner of Jackie Lorraine Drive and Eisenhower Road, where Dwight and Latanya Jemison gathered the community to give out food and warmth to those in need. 

The Jemisons live on Eisenhower Road, down the street from where several houses were severely damaged. While their home avoided the tornado, others down the street weren’t so fortunate.

“We basically went through the tornado with everyone, but we were one of the lucky ones,” Latanya Jemison said. “We didn’t get hit. And so when we didn’t get hit, we assumed no one got hit, but then we started hearing the people crying, screaming, yelling. And we got in our trucks yesterday afternoon and saw this mess. We just knew we had to help clean up, feed them, do whatever we could.”

Latanya and Dwight Jemison regularly serve the community through various organizations, such as Chance at Change and Diaper Angels, which aim to help those in need throughout the area. For them, providing relief following the tornado was just second nature. 

“We actually do this on a regular basis,” Latanya Jemison said. “So, when the call goes out, all we got to do is say ‘hey, we need you,’ and everyone comes. So they come from all over Clarksville to help us out.”

Mimi Price scoops a bowl of chili to hand out to members of the neighborhood after a tornado swept through the area Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

Whether related or not, each person volunteering to help is considered family; especially in such a time of need.

“This is our family,” Dwight Jemison said. “We just love, we’ve been doing this together for like nine, 10 years. So we just love being out here helping.”

Other volunteers served food at the Eldos Trace apartment complex, which was hit hard by the tornado. They had come from the other side of town, which was not in the path of the tornado.

Anitra Winn restocks a snack bin left out for survivors, workers and volunteers to grab and eat from Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Dominique Martinez-Powell | @dmartinez_powell.photography)

“I’ve been through a tornado before, so we kinda know what the feeling is, so kinda, help them out,” Stephen Winn said.

Clarksville experienced a similar F3 tornado in 1999, which struck the downtown area. This time, the storm avoided downtown, but still damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in Clarksville.

Throughout Sunday, volunteers near Eldos Trace said they became a drop-off point for supplies, which were then distributed to community members. That also includes food, which Winn estimated to have fed more than 200 people by midday.

Stephen Winn places a burger on a bun as passes out warm meals and snacks at Eldos Trace, an apartment complex that was damaged in the tornado the previous day Dec. 10, 2023 in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“We started off with 40 hamburgers and 40 hot dogs this morning, and it turned into, I’ve probably cooked 300 hamburgers and 300 hot dogs,” Winn said.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at Northeast High School to serve the Clarksville area. Lori Ann Tinajero, executive director of the Tennessee River chapter of the Red Cross, said that people interested in helping can call the 1-800-RED CROSS number in order to donate to the organization.

“We always need donations,” Tinajero said. “Because we provide the American Red Cross blankets, and it has American Red Cross on it, and the cots, and we reach out for food. Having the donations is always a great help for that.”

News editor Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen.

Staff photographer Dominique Martinez-Powell can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram at @dmartinez_powell.photography.

Photo editor Lylee Gibbs can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram at @lyleegibbsphoto.

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