Editor's Notebook

Too Close for Comfort: Tennessee Tornadoes Narrowly Miss DTN Editor's Home

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
Tornadoes tore through the Nashville area earlier this week, causing extensive damage to homes, businesses and schools, like West Wilson Middle School above. (Photo courtesy of Jen Jannusch)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Regular DTN readers may notice we still use datelines in our news stories. It's an outgrowth of newspapers, meant to inform the reader on where the reporting took place. Many of our articles originate from Omaha, but with reporters spread across the country, you'll also see datelines from Decatur, Illinois; Rockville, Maryland.; and Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville.

A series of tornadoes tore through Middle Tennessee on Monday night and early Tuesday morning, killing 25 people, injuring hundreds of others and causing yet untallied damages to homes and buildings. Mount Juliet was one of the communities hardest hit by the tornadoes, which came within a mile of DTN Farm Business Editor Katie Dehlinger's home. For all of us here at DTN, it was too close for comfort. Below, she shares her story.

-- DTN Editor-in-Chief Greg Horstmeier


Natural disasters have a way of making the ordinary things in life feel extraordinary.

On this day over the past few years, I've always taken a moment to share a few thoughts about my wonderful partner on social media as we celebrate our wedding anniversary. This year, that ritual seems trivial in comparison to the devastation all around us in the Nashville area. In the moments before the storm hit Tuesday morning and the days following, I've seen a side of my husband that makes me love him even more. In many ways, it's proof of how we've grown and changed, and how parenthood has fundamentally altered our perspective.

This was not our first tornado. Both of us were born and raised in the Midwest, and tornado drills were just a fact of life. When we were engaged and living in Omaha, a wild storm blew into town. It later was nicknamed the Mother's Day Tornado. After watching news coverage, I decided it was too close for comfort and headed to the basement. My husband, Brett, sat on the deck and watched. He is fascinated by storms, and I jokingly call him an amateur meteorologist. He was convinced we were out of that storm's path. When it was all over, he teased me, and I tried to lecture him about safety. In the end, I think it was a small F1 tornado with little damage. We went back to our lives.

This time everything is different.

The alarm on Brett's phone went off around 12:40 a.m., and I recall drowsily asking what it was for. I'd turned my emergency alerts off because the flash flood warnings we get here in Tennessee felt excessive. I heard him say, "It's a tornado wa ...," and in my head, I finished that sentence with watch. I was already back asleep.

Brett, being the weather nerd he is, got up, and went on our porch to take a look. It was quiet with just some lightning on the horizon, so he came back to bed. He heard rumbling a few minutes later, so he got up once again. He stepped outside, listened and waited for lightning. When it flashed, he saw what looked like a cloud on the ground. He raced inside, woke me up and told me to get in the pantry. He'd get our son, John Brooks.

I didn't fully grasp the seriousness of the situation until he called out to me a second time, "Katie, NOW!"

We sat in the pantry, irritated that our motion-activated light kept going on and off. My son looked around, not making a peep, alternating laying his head on my shoulder and reaching for daddy. As I held him, we lost power. Then the storm hit.

Have you ever stood next to a freight train as it goes by? It sounded like that. We thought our windows blew out in the beginning, but the storm never got any louder, so we crossed our fingers that it was just hail beating on panes of glass.

Once it quieted down, Brett went out to take a look. He said it was safe, but eerily quiet outside. I popped open the back door to take a listen, and just then, the wind started howling, so we retreated back to the pantry. We heard the tornado sirens and decided to wait a few more minutes before going back out into the house.

Brett checked our windows while I rocked little J.B. back to sleep, using an app on my phone to play white noise to help drown out the rest of the storms that were supposed to pass over that night. As the adrenaline subsided, I went back to sleep. Brett texted our mothers to let them know we were safe.

It wasn't until the morning that the full magnitude of what happened hit me. Power came back on much earlier than I expected, and the house seemed to hum as all of our little devices, appliances and fans kicked back to life. It was strangely loud after the quiet of the night.

I got out of bed, thankful I could make a cup of coffee. I snuck into my son's room to retrieve my phone, and there he slept, his little diaper butt up in the air with his legs tucked underneath him. He didn't move. That precious boy didn't know why we woke him up in the middle of the night, and sleeping there so soundly, it was almost like it hadn't happened.

Back in the living room, I looked at my phone, overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern.

"Family first," Brett said. "Then co-workers and friends." I spent the next hour talking to my mom, calling my coworkers at the DTN news offices in Omaha and letting friends know we were okay. Then, I turned on the news.

What had felt like a heightened tornado drill the night before became the closest call of our lives.

We moved to Nashville four years ago, a month after our wedding. We built our home a year after that, in this town called Mount Juliet on the outskirts of Nashville. It had all the small-town vibe with the closeness to the city; great schools for our son and convenient access to grocery stores and shops. Our neighborhood, tucked away from the road by a long boulevard, had such a great sense of community. I joined a book club with my neighbors. We have block parties. My neighbor texts me when we forget to close our garage. We look out for each other's lost pets. My neighbors stepped up to help with childcare for my son when we couldn't get into a daycare. We live in an incredible place, surrounded by loving and caring people.

And all of that was spared, literally by a mile. The tornado, which we now know was an F3 with 165-mile-per-hour winds, spared Beckwith Crossing, the Dehlingers and countless others. But it also took from many more. Folks who loved their homes and their communities and families as much or more than I did lost everything. A former coworker lost his cousins and their son, who was just a little older than J.B. My current nanny's house was destroyed. I haven't driven around town to view the damage yet. I'm worried I'd be in the way, but deep down, I'm not sure I'm quite ready for those tears.

The past year hasn't always been easy. There were times I'd get frustrated when my son struggled to fall asleep for his afternoon nap. But the past two days, I've relished those quiet moments. I've held him close, realizing it could have been so much different. He is blissfully unaware of how close it all came.

And my husband -- wow. Over the course of five years, he's gone from watching the storm to protecting his family and putting our safety first. I am so impressed at how we've grown and changed together and what a wonderful father he has become. As we try to determine the best ways we can help our neighbors and communities, I'm looking forward to taking a moment later today to celebrate us. It seems selfish to be looking forward to a night out when so many people are wishing they could be back in their homes, but it's important to count your blessings. My husband and the family we're building together are the greatest blessings of my life.

So to everyone out there: Hold your loved ones tight. Count your blessings. Love thy neighbor.

And if you'd like to help tornado victims in Tennessee, please start by donating to the Red Cross. https://www.redcross.org/…

Katie Dehlinger can be reached at katie.dehlinger@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter at @KatieD_DTN


Katie Dehlinger