BY ASHLEY SZATALA
Brothers with the Tennessee Tech undergraduate chapter immediately aid their community after deadly tornado
In the nighttime hours of March 2 and early morning of March 3, seven tornadoes carved a path of destruction across central Tennessee. Twenty-five people died, and 310 were injured. On the Enhanced Fujita scale that classifies tornadoes, the twisters ranged from EF0, meaning “weak,” and EF4, meaning “extreme” with wind speeds between 166 and 200 mph.
One of the seven tornadoes, ranked at the EF3 level, ripped through Nashville and surrounding areas. An EF4 tornado touched down just west of Cookeville nearly an hour later. That tornado was only on the ground for seven minutes and traveled about 8 miles, but its winds whipped through the area at a peak of 175 mph and killed 19 people.
The first thing the brothers of the Eta Delta chapter at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville did when they woke up on March 3 was reach out to family and friends to make sure everyone was OK. A few had classes at 8 a.m. and packed up to head to those. When the university cancelled classes at 8:30 a.m., the brothers returned to the chapter house to plan how to help their community.
“There wasn’t even really any hesitation for us,” Drew Martin, 2022, recalls. “We felt as if we had an obligation to help those who were in need.”
Cannon Johnson, 2022, agrees.
“We were fortunate enough to not be affected directly, but that didn’t mean we could just sit idle,” he says. “We had to show the residents that the community had their backs.”
For their efforts helping the Cookeville community, the brothers of the Tennessee Tech chapter have been named the fall quarter Mark V. Anderson Character-in-ActionTM Leadership Award recipient.
HELPING IN ANY WAY POSSIBLE
Gage Bentley, 2020, who was Consul at the time, remembers a chaotic scene once the brothers left campus. First responders were active around town, and helicopters were flying overhead. Some of the brothers drove to where the tornado struck, and others walked to the nearby Cookeville Regional Medical Center to give blood.
“The path of destruction was like nothing I had ever seen. One house was completely flattened with only the foundation remaining, and 50 yards over their neighbor’s house was untouched,” Bentley says.
Consul Camden Burgess, 2022, recalls looking around the remnants of a neighborhood.
“[The neighborhood] used to have about eight houses within 200 yards, and all that we saw was about six walls collectively within 200 yards,” he says. “Possessions, plywood and even cars were thrown from their original homes.”
Johnson lived through the 2010 Nashville flood that killed 26 people and damaged nearly 11,000 properties. He says the destruction from the tornado surpasses that of the flood.
“Personal belongings were being found miles away from the houses, bricks torn straight off the foundation, wood scattered everywhere, even up in the trees, homes ripped from the ground up,” he says. “It was hard to fathom what we were looking at.”
The brothers drove up to homes that had been destroyed and asked how they could help. They moved debris, tried to locate lost belongings, collected trash, cut up trees that had fallen on houses and provided food, water and supplies to first responders.
Along the way, they heard stories of how the tornado impacted families.
“We were at one house helping clean up, and someone there told us about what happened. The corner bedroom of the house was the young daughter’s [room]. She was in bed when the tornado hit,” Bentley says. “The windows blew in, and the force of the wind started to lift her bed. She grabbed onto the headboard to keep herself from being picked up. There were so many stories, and some had heartbreaking endings.”
The next day, some brothers went to assist the family of a brother’s youth pastor whose house was flattened.
“We basically did whatever we could to help out with the situation,” Burgess says. “Getting to speak to some of the families who lost what looked like everything, who just thanked us for being there when they needed the community most, made everything worth it. It gives you a hope and joy that is indescribable.”
In the days that followed, there were so many volunteers in the affected communities that police asked people to stay off the roads unless they specifically knew of someone who needed assistance.
“Interstates and backroads were at standstills with truckloads of people going to damage sites to help clean up. There were crowds of people as far as the eye could see,” Burgess says. “I now see why Tennessee is called the Volunteer State.”
PANDEMIC SLOWS AID
A couple of weeks after the deadly tornadoes struck central Tennessee, the state began enacting restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the governor issued a stay-at-home order on April 2. The brothers say the pandemic was untimely for the communities affected by the tornadoes.
“I pray for these families that saw a huge surge of support, but then the volunteers likely dwindled once quarantine orders came in,” Johnson says. “The status of Cookeville has definitely improved since the tornado, but of course there’s still a lot of work to be done, as this damage cannot be repaired in just a couple months.”
The Tennessee Tech brothers continue to help in any way they can, including through continued blood donations. Although the tornado was a devastating event, the men say there is a positive that has come from it.
“I’d say overall, the morale of the city is even higher than it was before. It was very uplifting and encouraging to see how everyone really came together and grew even closer as a community,” Martin says. “I’m very proud of how we [at Eta Delta] handled this situation and how quick we all were to do whatever we could.”
Adds Burgess: “Although there was so much destruction and sadness around the whole scenario, we truly got to see the best in people. I was so proud to not only be a Tennessee Tech student, but also a Sigma Chi.”
A person with good character shows trustworthiness, respect and fairness to others, as well as responsibility and citizenship. Those members who go out of their way to help others and those who overcome obstacles and lead with integrity are good candidates for the Mark V. Anderson Character-in-ActionTM Leadership Award.
Sigma Chi introduced the award to recognize the selfless acts of brothers. A formal recognition by the Fraternity allows non-members to appreciate the scope of the organization. For information about the award, see sigmachi.org/character.