Do you remember where you were on April 7th, 2006, at 2:22 p.m? Were you in a class in Pemberton Hall, Or Tyler Hall perhaps? As a Bucks student, I had just left my own class in Pemberton, barely an hour and half before. This was just a day in the life of a community college student, right?
It wasn’t for teachers, students and staff at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennesse. For those on campus that day, April 7th was anything but ordinary. It was a day filled with terror, uncertainty and shock. On that day, an F3 tornado, with winds between 165- 170 mph cut a devastating path through the campus and buildings at Volunteer State Community College, resulting in over $6 million dollars in damage to classrooms and staff offices.
According to Jennifer Easton, a student and employee of Volunteer State at the time of the event, now a Photojournalism Major at Western Kentucky University, she recalls her feelings about the tornado warnings for that day in an email to this reporter.
“I didn’t take the warning seriously. In fact, I remember thinking how inconvenient it would be for me if our power went out. I had a deadline to meet that afternoon, and I wanted to go home early. Quite honestly, I was annoyed. At worst, I thought we might have a thunderstorm.”
Middle Tennessee regularly experiences tornado warnings, and Jennifer was not alone in not taking the warnings seriously. Eric Melcher, Interim Director of Public Relations for Volunteer State, said the biggest impact the storm had on him was that he “now takes all tornado warnings more seriously. “
In a story dated June 2006 by Volunteer State Professor of Communication Clay Scott, for the Tennessee Press, the tornado struck the campus buildings, tearing a path through the “campus’s maintenance facility, classroom/theater building and the administration building and its parking lot. “
According to Interim Director Melcher, there were “400 or so” staff and students on campus at the time, a result of it being a Friday. They had regular emergency drills at the college, and building monitors were assigned to each building on campus.
According to an eyewitness article in April 17th issue of The Settler, the Volunteer State newspaper, President Warren Nichols “got on the phone with our buildings and our vice presidents and told them to be prepared.” One of the students, Jennifer Easton, describes what happened when the buildings were struck.
“Everything happened very quickly. When the power went out, I looked out of the double doors from my office suite and I could see that the sky was completely black. “
“As soon as he and I (an unidentified student she encouraged to take cover with her) made our way to the studio control room, my ears began popping. Now, I’ve always heard people describe a tornado sounding like a freight train coming, but I heard and felt the sensation of being in a plane taking off, only much louder. I could almost feel weight being pressed down on me. It was over in about 25 seconds.”
Interim Director Melcher estimates the damage to the campus to be “closing in on $7 million.” In addition to the extensive physical damage to Hal Reed Ramer Administrative Building, which housed the Humanities, Public Relations, Business and President’s offices, Caudill Hall was also heavily damaged. Caudill Hall, houses the department of Arts and Sciences as well as the campus radio station and the auditorium.
The Ramer Administration building has reopened in a partial capacity with classes and some staff offices. Caudill Hall is not expected to reopen until August of 2007, according to an April 24 story by The Settler’s staff reporter Ashley Houston.
As it nears the 6 month anniversary of the event, I wondered what impact this had on those who experienced it. Director Melcher said he had not realized the “massively increased pressure and stress” that an event like this could cause. He described not only the recovery effort of records and paperwork in offices, but personal items to be handled; “More than 90 cars were demolished.”
Jennifer Easton was one of those 90; she discovered her car across the street from the community college in the local Nissan dealership.
“I was grateful or the safety of my family and friends. It’s not like I lost a house, like many others in our community did. But, I was upset by the little things, like my school books, my son’s roller blades, a Girls Weekend CD mix that a friend made for me, and a videotape of my son’s eight birthday party that was the day before. I can’t stop wondering where those things went…?? Six months later, something still reminds me of the tornado everyday.”