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Residents Work To Recover After Deadly Tennessee Tornadoes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of families in Tennessee have spent this week picking through piles of rubble. A tornado struck in the early hours on Tuesday morning, flattening hundreds of homes and businesses and killing 24 people. Fatalities, which included children, are concentrated in Putnam County, where survivors dig through the wreckage of their homes and businesses. Few have found anything worth saving. And when they have, it's often been very little. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Tornadoes basically bulldozed some streets. Houses were swept clean off their foundations. Others practically exploded on top of families. And for several days, the concern was that under all this debris, there were still bodies.

TAMARA WILLIAMS: It's very scary because I know two of them are children from right over there.

FARMER: Tamara Williams lives in the McBroom area of Putnam County. She watched as firefighters used front-loaders to gingerly sift through the remnants of her two-story brick home. She and her three kids survived. But nearby, victims had been found on other people's property.

WILLIAMS: I couldn't imagine losing one of my kids or, you know, any of my family through it. So I can't imagine what they're feeling.

FARMER: In all, five children died, some along with their parents. The loss of life can make some of the cleanup feel trivial, even for families that lost everything. And what they're salvaging can seem incredibly insignificant. Thousands of volunteers have helped families like the Williams sort through the wreckage. Williams was grateful to locate her work ID.

WILLIAMS: They found my badge, so that's why I'm wearing it. I don't have a vehicle, either, because my vehicle is - well, I don't know where my car is, actually.

FARMER: The storms cut an 80-mile path of destruction from downtown Nashville to the east, strengthening along the way. A tornado first touched down at a small airport, destroying million-dollar private jets. It rumbled through dense neighborhoods, ripping apart storefronts, defacing historic homes and wrecking new condo buildings. The tornado that ravaged Putnam County had winds of at least 175 miles an hour. At that strength, there wasn't much left to save beyond small, sentimental items. One family spent hours hunting for a toddler's blankie. Another canvassed fields of debris looking for a prom dress, with success.

JEFF SMITH: Is it whole? It ain't torn?

FARMER: Jeff Smith's daughter, Aubrey, walks out of the field behind their home, holding a sky-blue gown with sequins - mud-caked but dry-cleanable, with the tags still on it.

AUBREY: Yeah, I didn't have on my contacts earlier, so I found it now.

FARMER: The junior in high school played it cool, but the family now had something to smile about after living through a nightmare.

AUBREY: Yeah, it was like a movie.

FARMER: Her dad received the tornado warning on his phone. It was nearly 2 in the morning.

SMITH: As I'm looking out the window, the wall pushes me back.

FARMER: He rushed to get his family to the basement.

SMITH: My daughter was upstairs in her bedroom. And as I'm walking her to get her down to the basement, the whole floor just falls down.

FARMER: The rest was a blur. The three of them were separated, pinned by the toppled walls and roof.

SMITH: I'm down for about 10, 15 minutes, buried alive. At that point, I'm just yelling, trying to get people to yell back.

FARMER: Somehow, they crawled out from under their home, and now they're left starting from scratch. But they're thankful to be alive, as many families are planning funerals.

SMITH: It's going to be the difference in replacing a house and replacing a home.

FARMER: Still, the size of the task ahead is starting to sink in. Ferdie DiFurio and his 9-year-old daughter were also trapped under their home, suffering cuts and bruises. The university economics professor didn't have the heart or the motivation to save basically anything.

FERDIE DIFURIO: Because I don't have a storage place for it, so you just take what you can. I see my daughter's bike there, but that's not going to come with me.

FARMER: He says when you've lost so much, sometimes, you just have to walk away. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Putnam County, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.