DRESDEN, Tenn. — Like so many other people in West Tennessee that Friday evening, Cathy Gallimore was watching the weather.
Gallimore kept glancing at the TV screen as she waited tables at a restaurant in a nearby town. Severe storms were pounding the entire area. Tornado warnings were everywhere.
A violent, long-track tornado, the first of three that Dec. 10, already had assaulted Arkansas, skipped over the river and smashed tiny Samburg about 40 miles east of Dresden, killing five people along the way.
A second, more devastating long-track tornado had formed about 20 miles northwest of Dresden just before 9 p.m. and was rampaging through western Kentucky as the restaurant was closing.
Gallimore was worried that night about her her 21-year-old granddaughter, who was at Gallimore’s house in Dresden, a small town about 120 miles northeast of Memphis near the Kentucky state line.
She also was worried about her house, a century-old, Victorian-style, two-story reclamation project she’d been working on for several years.
“It was just a sad house when I found it,” Gallimore said. “I could tell it just needed a little TLC, a little makeup. I had that house looking pretty. Then the COVID hit and the restaurant closed and I couldn’t keep up the insurance.”
Gallimore had just started working shifts again at the restaurant the week before. The timing couldn’t have been better. Christmas was close and her grandkids were excited. She hadn’t even put up a tree the year before for fear of fire.
After the restaurant closed, Gallimore counted her tips. She’d made more than she expected.
“I knew if I made $50 on Saturday, then some more Sunday after church, I could get the insurance back on the house on Monday,” she said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened.”
‘Get there now, please’
On Dec. 10, 2021, severe storms spawned opens in a new windowmore than 60 tornadoes in eight states, killing 89 people and devouring hundreds of homes, buildings and trees.
It was the nation’s deadliest outbreak of December tornadoes on record. Most of the damage was caused by opens in a new windowthree massive long-track tornadoes.
The opens in a new windowfirst formed about 6:40 p.m. in eastern Arkansas. The extreme EF-4 tornado, a mile wide with winds peaking at 170 miles per hour, traveled 80 miles in 90 minutes, killing five people in three states.
The opens in a new windowsecond, an extreme EF-4 a mile wide with winds peaking at 190 miles per hour, formed about 9 p.m. in northwest Tennessee. It traveled 165 miles in three hours, killing 57 people in seven western Kentucky counties.
The opens in a new windowthird long-track tornado, a severe EF-3 with winds peaking at 165 miles per hour, began forming about 10:30 p.m. 40 miles southwest of Dresden, just as Gallimore was driving home. The half-mile wide tornado belted Newbern and smacked Kenton, then passed just north of Sharon, a small community about 10 miles from Dresden.
“The rain and wind was so bad, I had to pull over at the high school,” Gallimore said. “I couldn’t see. The car was shaking. The sirens were blaring.”
Gallimore called her granddaughter, Asia, who was sitting on Gallimore’s front porch about three miles away.
“It’s calm here,” Asia told her. “The weather isn’t doing anything.”
“Do you know where to go?” Gallimore said.
“The Harry Potter closet,” Asia said, a reference to an interior closet under the staircase.
“Get there now, please,” Gallimore said.
Then the phone went dead.
‘I’m on my way, baby’
The second long-track tornado moved into Dresden at 11:04 p.m., snapping trees and telephone poles, flinging cars and trucks, slinging signs and decapitating houses.
Three minutes later, the twister dug a diagonal path through downtown Dresden.
It blew up five blocks of buildings along the south side of Main Street by court square.
It took out City Hall, the fire department, the police department, a gas station and two 19th-Century churches — Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Dresden First United Methodist Church.
It tore up the mayor’s home, the Dresden Enterprise newspaper office, a pizza place, a dentist’s office, a branch bank and more than two dozen other businesses, including Vaughan Brothers Hardware, whose iconic sign was found the next day in Kentucky.
As the tornado brushed by the Weakley County Courthouse, it crossed over Main and moved into Gallimore’s neighborhood, demolishing one house after another.
Gallimore’s granddaughter ran into the Harry Potter closet and held the door closed with a rope. The wind sucked the door back open. She pulled it shut again. The house shook and she bounced around inside the closet.
Then everything stopped. A few minutes later, Asia called her grandmother.
“She was hysterical,” Gallimore said. “She told me the house had been hit. She said she wasn’t hurt, but I asked her to check and make sure she wasn’t bleeding somewhere. She wasn’t, thank God. She said, ‘Granny, come get me.’ I’m on my way, baby.”
‘It broke my heart’
Gallimore doesn’t remember how long it took her to get to her house that night. She had to walk the final few blocks.
Downed trees and power lines, flipped cars and steady rain and lightning had turned the streets of Dresden into a dark and hazardous maze of mangled wood, twisted metal and live wires.
People were standing in the rain. Some houses were too damaged or dangerous to provide shelter. Other houses had simply vanished.
When Gallimore got to the corner of Main and Cedar, she felt a glimmer of hope.
“My house was still there,” she said. “I was so relieved.”
Gallimore bought the old house a few blocks east of court square for $38,000 in 2017. She put $9,000 down.
It was the first house she’d owned since her father, her husband and her oldest adult son all died of various ailments over a 14-month period from 2005-2007.
“I worked three jobs trying to save enough money to avoid a house payment,” Gallimore said. “I’m a 60-year-old, $3-an-hour waitress. I didn’t want another house payment. But I fell in love with that old house.”
Gallimore spent three years repairing the walls, floors, windows and other parts of the house. She sanded and power-washed and painted. She made shutters and flower boxes for the windows. She restored the big wraparound front porch.
“I put a lot of heart into that house,” she said. “It broke my heart to see what happened to it.”
‘Raining in my house’
As Gallimore walked closer to her house that night, her heart sank.
The wraparound front porch was gone. So was the big bay window in back. The wall on the south side was caved in. Parts of the roof had disappeared. The wind had lifted and shifted the entire house slightly off its foundation.
She pried open the back door and went in. Her neighbor, Ben Herron, a retired businessman and farmer, was in the living room holding her granddaughter, who was weeping hysterically.
The tornado tore up Herron’s house across the street, and it felled several pecan trees his father had planted decades before. Herron climbed out the back of his house and started checking on his neighbors. The Gallimores were first.
”She’s OK, she’s OK,” Herron told Gallimore.
So were Gallimore’s two dogs, a German Shepherd and a Beagle, startled but safe inside a wire cage that had been blown across the living room.
As wind whipped through the house, Gallimore wrapped her arms around granddaughter and tried to wrap her mind around the damage.
The tornado blew all the windows out or in. It upended furniture and appliances and emptied boxes. It pounded the air conditioning unit in her bedroom into a round ball on the floor. It pushed in walls, buckled floors and cracked and gashed ceilings. Water was pouring into the hallway.
”It was raining in my house,” Gallimore said.
The more she looked, the more she knew. The house would have to be demolished.
The only room still in tact was the Harry Potter closet.
“It broke my heart to tear down that house, but I realized how lucky I was that my granddaughter was all right,” Gallimore said. “I was just so thankful that I didn’t have to attend another funeral.”
‘A lot of help’
The long-track tornado that thrashed Dresden trashed hundreds of homes and buildings on its two-hour, 122-mile rampage through West and Middle Tennessee.
Dresden took the brunt of the blast.
The twister severely damaged or destroyed 150 homes and 35 businesses in town — about one of every 10 structures with a city water meter.
Officials estimated that Weakley County sustained more than $6 million in property damage, more than half the estimated storm damage across the state.
Severe storms killed five people in Tennessee that evening, but remarkably, miraculously, none in Dresden. Only 13 people in Dresden were injured.
”That first tornado put us all on alert,” Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum said. “People here were tuned in to what had happened in Kentucky. We were watching that news unfold. When the local stations said another tornado was headed our way, people took it more seriously and took cover.”
Then people got to work. City and county crews and dozens of volunteers used track hoes, chainsaws, shovels, rakes and trucks to clear the streets and help each other dig out and clean up.
The Red Cross helped the county set up a recovery center at a local school, but there wasn’t enough temporary shelter space at the center or available housing in the county to handle all the refugees.
“A lot of people were displaced outside the county,” Bynum said, “but as far as I know, no one was left homeless.”
Many were left carless. The tornado destroyed two Dresden body shops, and it knocked out the local telephone service provider for weeks.
“A lot of cars were damaged or destroyed during the tornado,” Bynum said, “but there weren’t enough body shops to do the work, and people couldn’t even make phone calls to try to get insurance estimates.”
There haven’t been enough contractors to assess, demolish, clear and rebuild all the damaged properties.
“Because of COVID, the demand for contractors was at an all-time high before the tornado,” Bynum said. “This just exacerbated that problem.”
Nearly a year later, residents are still waiting for contractors to rebuild 14 homes that were destroyed and renovate 38 others that were badly damaged.
“We’ve had our fair share of struggles,” Bynum said, “but we’re making progress as we move through the recovery. We’ve had a lot of help. People have been so generous.”
‘God’s Pit Crew’
While Dresden waited for federal disaster funds to kick in, countless others pitched in.
A company in South Korea donated a tractor to the city on behalf of Tony Lay, a Dresden native who hosts “Tony’s Tractor Adventure” on YouTube.
The Weakley County Baptist Association, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and local churches of Christ provided volunteers and resources to aid the cleanup.
Local churches and other organizations established the Weakley County Long Term Recovery Group, which has received more than $700,000.
Cookeville and Putnam County, where 19 people were killed by an EF-4 tornado in March 2020, donated $100,000 to Dresden and another $40,000 to nearby Kenton. That money went into the Dresden Rotary Club’s Tornado Relief Fund, being overseen by West Tennessee United Way.
The Volunteer Center, a nonprofit created years ago by the late Gov. Ned McWherter, a Weakley County native, and local legislators Craig Fitzhugh, Roy Herron and Mark Maddox, has collected more than $100,000 in tornado relief funds.
Tennessee Realtors donated $50,000 worth of toys to replace those stolen by the storm.
God’s Pit Crew, a faith-based nonprofit in Virginia, sent disaster response teams to West Tennessee and western Kentucky in December and again in January.
They fired up portable generators, cut trees, mucked out homes, tarped roofs, toted debris and handed out “blessing buckets” filled with food, hygiene products and Bibles.
“We partner with local churches, get to know the folks there, do whatever we can to help with the recovery,” said Suzanne Boase-Honeycutt, the nonprofit’s director of public and media relations. “Someone told us about Cathy. We were so moved by her story. She has been through so much hardship and heartbreak.”
‘Angels in the ruins’
The 2021 tornado wasn’t the first disaster in Cathy Gallimore’s adult life.
In 1987, a defective water heater set fire to the trailer she lived in with her husband and two children in the nearby Cottage Grove community.
“We got out, but we lost everything,” said Gallimore, who was pregnant with her third child at the time.
In the 1990s, the Gallimores ran a fast food restaurant in nearby Paris, then a steak house just over the Kentucky state line near Fulton.
“We had more than recovered from the fire,” Gallimore said. “Then everything just fell apart.”
Gallimore’s father died in November 2005.
In July 2006, her husband suffered a massive fatal heart attack.
In January 2007, her older son Michael, who worked for a moving company and hurt his back moving a piano, died from an overdose of painkillers in 2007. He was 24.
In 2016, her younger son Brian suffered a massive fatal heart attack. He was 29.
Gallimore’s heart was a wreck.
“I felt like I was just getting back on my feet again when COVID hit,” she said. “And I felt like I was just getting back on my feet again when the tornado hit.”
After the tornado, Gallimore spent the night at her sister’s house in nearby Gleason. The next morning, she went back to her house in Dresden.
An angel figurine from her son Michael’s funeral was sitting on her driveway. “I have no idea how it got there,” she said.
She walked through the wreckage but didn’t stay long. She didn’t plan to return. “It was too painful,” she said.
A few days later, Erin Dugan, a Nashville videographer who is related to the Herron family, asked Gallimore to meet her at the house.
Dugan filmed Gallimore as she talked about the tragedy and rummaged through the remains. She dug into one pile and pulled out another angel figurine. This one had a broken wing. It also was from her son Brian’s funeral.
“I am overwhelmed that I found my angels in the ruins,” Gallimore said as Dugan filmed. “I gotta believe I’m going to survive this and I’m going to be OK on the other end of it.”
‘God was in this’
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured Dresden the day after the tornado.
“This is about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Lee said as he looked at Dresden’s destruction. “The whole town. The whole town.”
While Lee was in Dresden, Charles Atkins was driving to western Kentucky to help tornado survivors there.
“My wife called and said the governor was on TV pleading with folks to go to help the tornado victims in West Tennessee,” Atkins said. “So I changed directions and went to Dresden.”
Atkins and his wife, Sharon, own a PuroClean franchise in Cleveland, Tenn. The company cleans and restores property damaged by floods, storms and other problems.
Atkins also uses his expertise to help the Cleveland-based Church of God respond to floods, tornadoes and other disasters of biblical proportions.
In Dresden, Atkins and his son began helping some commercial property owners, including Herron, the former state legislator whose law office on the square suffered was damaged.
Herron asked Atkins to take a look at the house where his brother Ben lived as well as Gallimore’s house across the street. Gallimore wasn’t there, but she’d given the Herrons permission to show it.
“I could tell it had been a beautiful old home, but as I walked through it I knew it was definitely a total loss,” Atkins said. “The tornado had moved the whole house.”
That afternoon, Atkins and his son went to lunch at a restaurant in a nearby town. While Atkins was telling his son and other crew members about Gallimore’s house, their waitress walked up.
“That’s my house you’re talking about,” Gallimore told them. “That’s me.”
“I’d never met the woman,” Atkins said. “But I knew instantly that God was in this.”
Atkins told Gallimore that he had a friend who ran a faith-based organization called God’s Pit Crew. Atkins had been working with the founders, Randy and Terri Johnson, for 20 years.
“I told her I can’t make any promises,” Atkins said. “All I can do is tell them about you. Then it’s up to the good Lord to take care of it.”
‘Thank you isn’t enough’
Since 1999, opens in a new windowGod’s Pit Crew has built 55 houses, eight churches and three schools for natural disaster survivors across the South.
This year, the organization built five homes — four in Kentucky and one in Dresden.
“When they first told me they were going to build me a house, I think I cried for several days,” Gallimore said. “It’s so hard to believe that somebody out there would build you a new house for free.”
On Aug. 24, Roy and Nancy Herron drove Gallimore blindfolded to the corner of Main and Cedar.
Washburn and dozens of other people were there with Gallimore’s sister, Brenda. So were God’s Pit Crew founders Randy and Terri Johnson.
Gallimore stood on Main Street and removed the scarf from around her eyes.
“This is your new house, honey,” Terri Johnson told her.
”Oh, my God,” Gallimore said through tears. “It’s beautiful. Even more beautiful than I imagined.”
She walked across the street and up the stairs to her new front porch, where Brenda was waiting for her.
Terri Johnson said a prayer for Gallimore and her family and a blessing for the new home. Then she took Gallimore inside her new, fully finished, furnished and stocked three-bedroom, two-bath home.
More family and friends were inside. They showed her kitchen drawers, cupboards and cabinets filled with new dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a mixer and a coffee maker.
They showed her a master bedroom with a king-size bed, a walk-in closet and a master bath with two sinks.
“Oh, Lord, I’m going to have to get married again,” Gallimore said with a laugh when she saw the sinks. “No, that’s OK. I’ll just wash my hands in one sink and rinse them in the other.”
They showed her family photos salvaged from the wreckage that were newly framed and placed throughout the house.
They showed her the 111-year-old front door from her old house. It had been rescued from the rubble and restored with a new stained-glass window. It was now the door to her new laundry room.
“You can see it’s in the exact same location it was on the old house,” Johnson said.
Gallimore wept some more.
“I just don’t know what to say,” she said. “Thank you isn’t enough.”
‘People have lost more than I have’
After the tornado, Gallimore moved in with her sister’s family in nearby Gleason. She still spends most of her time there.
Her 80-year-old mother, Fay Bowden, McKenzie’s retired postmaster, is suffering from dementia.
Her younger sister, Brenda, is battling bone cancer.
Gallimore spends six days and nights at her sister’s house taking care of her mother and sister. She spends one night a week at her new house.
“I know people out there who have lost more than I have,” she said. “I know a lady who lost her husband, only child, and all her grandchildren in a house fire. She was the only survivor. Last Christmas they found her sitting in a lawn chair in the graveyard.”
This Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gallimore’s new house will be full.
”Even with the tragedies, I’m just so grateful for what I still have,” Gallimore said. “I still have a daughter. I still have my grandchildren and a great-grandchild. I still have my mother and sister for as long as God allows. And I still have a house.”
For more information about Weakley County tornado resources, visit opens in a new windowweakleycountytn.gov. Donations for tornado relief are being accepted by the opens in a new windowDresden Rotary Club and the opens in a new windowVolunteer Center.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.