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Retired pastor’s home lost to tornado

As a 74-year-old retired United Methodist elder still serving a rural church, the Rev. Jackie Wheeler has seen people through a lot of crises.

Now he’s dealing with one of his own.

Wheeler choked up describing how a tornado that tore through Putnam County, Tennessee, destroyed his home and the other buildings on his four-acre farm, just outside the county seat of Cookeville. He survived by hunkering down in a bedroom closet, but later in the exhausting and emotional day had a bad fall requiring 16 stitches.

Much worse was hearing an insurance agent declare a total loss the home his parents built in 1958. His father nailed many of the boards as main carpenter, and Wheeler has lived there on and off for 62 years. 

“I’m taking one hour at a time. That’s all I can do,” Wheeler said by phone on March 5. “The Lord saw me through it, and he’ll see me through the rest of it. It’s going to be very difficult.”

The early morning of March 3 brought horrific, fast-moving storms to Middle Tennessee, and early news attention focused on Nashville and its suburbs. There, scores of structures — including United Methodist churches — were destroyed or badly damaged. 

News from Putnam County, 80 miles east of Nashville, was slower in coming, due to the extent of tornado devastation there, and to loss of power and phone connections. 

“It was sobering to realize how few pastors I could reach,” said the Rev. Donna Parramore, superintendent of the Caney Fork River District of the Tennessee Conference, which includes Putnam County. “We didn’t have cell service for the majority of that day (March 3).”

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