Billy Dyer, 64, was sitting in the living room of his home in Baxter, Tenn. with his wife, Kathy, around midnight on Monday night when he got an emergency alert on his phone about a tornado. His wife got the same alert shortly after him.
Dyer now believes these alerts likely saved their lives.
The two quickly went down to their basement to take shelter, and to watch the news for further updates. As soon as they sat down, Dyer tells TIME, “the top part of the house exploded.”
“It seemed like [the wind] went on for a long time, but it actually went by pretty quick,” Dyer said.
Parts of Tennessee were devastated this week by a series of tornadoes that hit multiple counties, including Putnam, Benton, Wilson and Davidson, which contains the city of Nashville. So far, officials have listed at least 24 fatalities, with many more people still missing.
It’s the deadliest tornado disaster in the U.S. this year; last year in Alabama, 23 people were killed by a tornado that hit Lee County.
Over 140 buildings were destroyed throughout impacted neighborhoods; fallen trees and debris was left scattered haphazardly. Power outages left over 50,000 homes without electricity.
Kerry and Ken Gluck were in bed inside their two story home in Mount Juliet, Tenn., just outside of Nashville, when they were aroused by the tornado alert.
But it wasn’t until their son Tyler — who lives in their basement — yelled to them that they needed “to get in the basement now” that they really woke up, Kerry tells TIME. As they began to move downstairs, though, the tornado hit.
“It sounded like a big truck outside or a locomotive, it’s hard to describe,” Kerry says. “When we heard that we started running.”
The entire house collapsed onto them. Kerry and Tyler were trapped in the basement, while Ken and his 93-year-old mother, Pearl, were trapped on the main level as the tornado destroyed their home.
“We didn’t know what happened to my mother-in-law or my husband,” Kerry says. “I was screaming for them and we didn’t hear anything.”
Once the storm passed, Kerry and Tyler were able to get back to the main level where they found Pearl trapped under a desk. Ken was trapped under a wall that had fallen when the tornado hit. Both Ken and Pearl were later rescued and are recovering in hospital.
The only part of the Gluck’s house still standing is a single wall.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has declared a state of emergency and multiple state and federal agencies — including the National Guard, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and county-level emergency services — have responded to the disaster.
Having toured the damage wrought across the state, Lee offered condolences to those affected, but also said he was very happy with recovery efforts happening across impacted areas, highlighting in particular residents who offered assistance to their neighbors.
“In the worst of circumstances, the best of people comes out and that’s what we’re seeing here in Tennessee,” Lee said at a press conference on Tuesday.
As the tornado hit, Dyer said his entire house shook. With the roof gone, the home began to flood. Most of his house is ruined, he tells TIME.
“It hit so fast, a lot of folks didn’t have time to take shelter,” Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said, according to the Associated Press. “Many of these folks were sleeping.” (At least 18 deaths have been reported in Putnam County, where Dyer lives.)
Dyer said that his daughter, Brooke, was in the house next door, where his parents had previously lived. After the storm passed he said he had to help her out of the remnants of the residence. “My mother and father’s house… It’s pretty much gone,” Dyer says. “It looks like some type of war zone.”
Recovery efforts began in impacted communities the next morning, amid the grim scenes and searches for missing people. “After a little while 20 people, turned into 30, turned into 50 and then turned into about 100 volunteers,” Kerry says of volunteers offering help to Mount Juliet residents. “It’s amazing how people have just stepped up.”
“We’re strong here in Nashville. We’re going to get through this,” Robyn Erickson of Germantown, Nashville, tells TIME. She and her husband Jim lost their apartment after the tornado ripped through the building they lived in. The couple have lived in Germantown for three years, Robyn Erickson says, and while this disaster destroyed their home, she’s hopeful that they can stay and rebuild the community.
Not everyone is so positive: Billy Dyer praised the recovery efforts that have started in the neighborhood but, though he has lived in Tennessee for almost his entire life, he now says he’s unsure if he will remain in his rebuilt home.
“I don’t know… it depends on how much work has to be done,” Dyer says. “My concern is that this won’t be the last tornado we experience if we stay.”