Double strike: Tornado, virus push Tennesseans to the limit
Nashville, Tenn. – When Jose Cojom’s house collapsed around his family in a tornado that struck after midnight, he knew his life was going to get much harder. But that was just the beginning. A few weeks later, the restaurant where he cooks closed its doors because of the coronavirus.
Now, living in a rental apartment, Cojom’s family faces an uncertain future, unsure whether to rebuild or move on.
“The tornado was a monster, almost killed us,” Cojom said. “Now, I’m off work for two weeks. It kind of hurts me because it makes me stay home and think about all the things that we went through.”
Like thousands of other Middle Tennesseans, Cojom’s life has been upended by back-to-back disasters. Putnam County residents still reeling from the deadly twisters of March 3 now have to confront life in the age of coronavirus.
The storms that tore through the region killed 25 people – 19 in Putnam County, 80 miles east of Nashville – and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings. Homes where people had been sleeping were demolished, sending families to hotels and shelters. Donations poured in, electrical and construction crews mobilized, and volunteers handed out supplies and served meals.
Then the coronavirus pandemic complicated the recovery efforts. The virus has sickened more than 2,800 in Tennessee and more than 30 in Putnam County, according to the state health department. Residents who had united to help tornado-stricken neighbors quickly retreated to their houses. Volunteers who came from as far as Kansas went back home.
The emergence of COVID-19 closed business and schools and set off a wave of hotel cancellations. As the virus encroaches on the county where twisted metal still hangs in trees along Interstate 40, Mayor Randy Porter said debris cleanup could take several more weeks.
“It’s been tiring and a little stressful, but we’re working through it,” Porter said. “We live in a loving, come-together community.”
At Cookeville Regional Medical Center in the county seat, doctors and nurses have gone from treating about 80 patients injured in the tornado to preparing for coronavirus. Visitation has been restricted, elective surgeries postponed. One hospital employee died and six others lost everything in the tornado, hospital CEO Paul Korth said. Tornado damage closed a medical supplies warehouse in Mt. Juliet, and the hospital is supplementing its limited supply of ventilators and masks.
“We are trying to be very cautious and very proactive on how we use those,” Korth said.
The hospital had five COVID-19 patients Thursday, spokeswoman Melahn Finley said.
In most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, it can cause more severe illness.