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Cellphone alerts helped Tennessee couple escape

They took shelter in home’s basement as tornado struck

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This Santa bear came to rest in the splinter of a tree in the Locust Grove area just off Highway 70 west of Cookeville, Tenn.,Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jack McNeely/The Herald-Citizen via AP) (teresa m.
This Santa bear came to rest in the splinter of a tree in the Locust Grove area just off Highway 70 west of Cookeville, Tenn.,Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jack McNeely/The Herald-Citizen via AP) (teresa m. walker/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

BAXTER, Tenn. — Billy Dyer’s cellphone blared out an emergency alert, then his wife Kathy’s phone followed, giving them just enough time to get downstairs and flip on a TV to check the news.

Then the tornado hit.

When the sun rose Tuesday morning, the Dyers emerged to find the walls around their corner bedroom gone. Their mattress was perched precariously on their bed’s headboard, with only sky all around.

“Thank God we had enough time to get downstairs to the basement or we would probably not be here,” Dyer said.

State emergency officials said 24 people died when fast-moving storms crossed Tennessee early Tuesday. Eighteen of them, including five pre-teen children, died in Putnam County, some 80 miles east of Nashville. Eighty-eight more were injured in the county.

The twister that hit Putnam County was classified EF-4, the second strongest, with winds of 175 mph, the National Weather Service said Wednesday evening.

The number of people unaccounted for dropped to three from 21, Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said late Wednesday afternoon. The search is about 90 percent complete, Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris said.

“We have made some great progress today,” Porter said, adding it was a “time-consuming process” tracking down those still unaccounted for.

People across Nashville were awakened by outdoor sirens warning of the tornado danger early Tuesday. Sirens also sounded in parts of Putnam County, but in the Dyers’ Double Springs community, deep in the countryside, no such systems exist.

“If the cellphones didn’t have the emergency call, it wouldn’t have been good,” Dyer said.

The twisters ripped off brick facades, bent metal poles and shredded more than 140 buildings while burying people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements.

John C. Tune Airport, a smaller airport in Nashville that generally serves corporate and private aircraft, estimated $93 million in infrastructure damage, not accounting for 90 destroyed aircraft and other damaged vehicles. Nashville International Airport emerged unscathed.

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