Earlier this week, a tornado struck middle Tennessee, devastating significant swathes of the volunteer state. Two days after the tornado touched down in the middle of the night, the Associated Press reported that at least 24 people had been killed. According to the Tennessean, dozens more were missing.
Such was the toll of the terrible tornado that struck Nashville and some other parts of Tennessee. Now, members of those communities will have to spend the coming years repairing vital infrastructure and grieving those lost.
These sentiments are expressed by headlines and ledes nationwide. However, only on paragraph six, seven or perhaps eight of these stories will an intrepid reader find that 18 of those killed by “the Nashville tornado” are from Putnam County, Tenn.
Putnam County is about an hour and a half east of Nashville. Its population hovers around 75,000 people while it’s largest city, Cookeville, has about 30,000 residents. Cookeville is largely thought of as a college town. It’s the home of Tennessee Tech, the state’s eleventh largest college and my birthplace.
As I write this, 22 people are missing from the Cookeville area, and 18 have been killed. Five of the dead are children.
The Nashville tornado is not a Nashville tornado. If I bristle when I see or hear it mentioned as such, that’s the fault of my human nature.
The past week has been a strange one for me. Between attending classes and studying for midterms, I have exchanged stories about the growing devastation in my family group chat; I have checked lists of the dead and the missing with a sense of strange gravity; and I have listened to my cousin’s harrowing story about crawling out from under his completely collapsed house alongside his wife and three daughters – thankfully, somehow, with their lives.
I have listened with the knowledge that not all in Nashville, Cookeville, Baxter, Tennessee, have been so “lucky.”
When we think of a faraway state, our minds likely drift to its capital or most populated city. It follows that a headline mentioning a notable city will garner more clicks.
But we are not a nation of Nashvilles, Louisvilles, New York Cities or St. Louises. And when national news outlets reference tragedy in terms of amorphous, city-based terms, they ignorantly and neglectfully misrepresent the story.
Yes, relevance is important. As a journalist, I practice that value nearly every day. But as I have learned this week, the difference between life and death is as miniscule as one’s choice in drywall or the way the wind blows, and it is as capricious as a fickle, changing climate.
The small things make a great deal of difference.
I am asking you – human, journalist, perhaps both – to make that difference by acknowledging the small things and small places, even if they mean nothing to you.
I promise they mean a great deal to someone else.
To read more about the tornado in Tennessee, check out The Herald-Citizen, Cookeville’s local newspaper.