JACKSON, TN. Tornadoes aren't supposed to smash downtowns. They're supposed to destroy subdivisions, trailer parks, and little towns out in the country.
Sheriff's deputies and dispatchers aren't supposed to huddle under tables and scramble into bathrooms for shelter. They're supposed to ride around with their flashing lights on, scouting the path of the storm or manning their post at the radio.
Tornado monuments are supposed to be sacred memorials for the ages, not targets for an even worse tornado less than two years later.
And brave boys caught in the storm rescue their mothers while clinging to a pole for dear life in the movies, not in real life.
But the people of Jackson the unluckiest city in America this week saw all those things happen in the terrifying storm that struck Sunday night.
Anyone who ever watched the Weather Channel and wondered what a decent-sized downtown would look like if it took a direct hit from one of those fearsomely photogenic tornadoes found out this week in Jackson. Cemeteries, historic downtown churches, eight-story buildings, utility plants, the police station, the sheriff's department, the jail, and the Carl Perkins Civic Center all took major hits. So did the fortress-like building where the Tennessee Supreme Court meets, and the two federal buildings, and the most popular downtown restaurants. The Civil War memorial on the square was still standing, but not many of the trees around it.
Johnny Williams, CEO of the Jackson Energy Agency, called it "the most severe disaster in Jackson I have experienced in 30 years, as far as utilities." Both of the city's water treatment plants were damaged and lost water pressure. The day after the storm, you couldn't get a drink of water downtown, and a single glow-stick lit the otherwise darkened restroom at the police station.
Unity Park, a memorial to Jackson's deadly 1999 tornado that was dedicated on October 24, 2001, was a popular focal point for photographers and television news crews. One of eight huge concrete balls commemorating victims of that tornado had been blown off its pedestal and the little park was littered with storm debris.
Jackson residents marveled that the damage wasn't even worse. "I picked up a hailstone as big as a softball in my front yard," said David Burke, 53, who teaches theater at Union University in Jackson.
Curtis Love, 50, was working at a homeless shelter near downtown when the tornado approached. As lightning flashed, he could see the outline of the funnel trailing pale green flashes "that looked like green lightning" as transformers exploded. "It was awesome," Love said. "It was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life."
The roof and half of the sanctuary were gone at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, built in 1845, making it the oldest building in continuous use in Madison County. Members of the church were climbing a pile of rubble to pick out bricks and stacking them on the sidewalk.
"We will rebuild," promised the Rev. Charles Filiatreau.
There was a nervous hour Monday afternoon when the sky got dark once again and rain began to fall. People driving through town spread the word that another tornado watch had been issued for Madison County and a tornado was on the ground somewhere out in the country.
At the Madison County Sheriff's Office, battered squad cars with broken windows were draped in black plastic and most of the doors and windows of the building itself had been blown out. The warning sirens had also been knocked out and weren't able to sound the alarm when, incredibly, a second tornado warning was issued at 2:45 p.m. Sheriff David L. Woolfork and a couple dozen employees were as helpless as everyone else as hail and sideways rain pelted the windows that hadn't been broken and wind and water blew through the open space where the front doors used to be.
"I've got this one," Woolfork joked as he headed for a bathroom that had already drawn a small crowd. "It's kind of like driving around in a Volkswagen."
That brief storm proved to be just a scare. The funnel cloud that had been spotted near the rural Denmark Elementary School south of downtown didn't touch down this time. But the big one the night before had ripped a path three miles long through the community of small homes, farms, and trailers.
On a driveway at the bottom of a hill in front of two piles of rubble, Anita Rhodes came up to talk to a reporter who wanted to know what happened in Denmark. She considered the question for a few seconds and then waved a hand at the piles of sticks.
"This is what happened in Denmark," she said.
In a weary voice, she told an incredible story. Her sister-in-law, Rhonda McLaughlin, and her two sons had been in their trailer when it flipped several times into the woods. During a pause in the storm, 15-year-old T.J. found his mother in the woods, lifted two trees off her, and toted her toward the shelter of a car. But the wind picked up again, and he had to wrap one arm around a post while clutching his mother with the other one. Finally he got her to the car, then set off again in search of his 7-year-old brother Lee and their grandfather, Larry Kiddy, who lived in the other trailer and was recuperating from heart surgery.
T.J. found Kiddy and put a tarp over him to protect him from debris. He was later taken to a Jackson hospital where he is in intensive care. Mrs. McLaughlin was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Memphis.
Lee's body was found in the woods, one of nine fatalities in Denmark.