ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The tornado that ripped through middle Tennessee early this morning was the worst kind. It came when most people were sound asleep, and many went to bed without a hint that such deadly weather was even a possibility. Now at least 22 people are dead. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN starts his story from the hardest-hit communities in Putnam County.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Especially this time of year, tornado warnings are not out of the ordinary in Tennessee. But when Terri McWilliams' phone started buzzing on her nightstand, she decided not to ignore it.
TERRI MCWILLIAMS: My gut was just like, you need to get the kids.
FARMER: The wind was howling, and then it began to roar.
MCWILLIAMS: We come running down the basement. And my son, who's 17, was the last one, and he had to dive down the stairs because the walls were falling in and the roof was lifting. And he was under rubble, but he was able to climb out and get into the basement.
FARMER: Their home in the rolling hills of a community called Double Springs had crumbled around them. They were lucky to be alive. Many more in Putnam County, about 90 minutes east of Nashville, either didn't get the warning or had nowhere to go.
MCWILLIAMS: So by the time that warning went off, we had minutes.
FARMER: It was a warm night with rain moving through, but even meteorologists were caught a bit flat-footed. Mark Rose is with the National Weather Service.
MARK ROSE: We were under a slight risk of severe storms. We did not expect a tornado of this magnitude to happen in the middle of the night.
FARMER: The storm twisted along an 80-mile path, toppling semitrucks, uprooting old trees and bending metal power poles thought unbendable. Two-by-fours became harpoons, stabbing into the soft lawns but also piercing glass and metal. Homes were damaged across parts of three counties all after midnight.
DONALD VICKERS: I said, I'm going to put my shoes and pants on, go back down in the garage.
FARMER: Eighty-two-year-old Donald Vickers of Mount Juliet felt the same sixth sense that something bad was coming. His garage is still standing. His house is not.
VICKERS: Luckily, I did because I'd have been up here somewhere in that bedroom with the bricks all laying there.
FARMER: The front wall of his brick home is laying on top of his bed. Now he's trying to figure out what to salvage, picking through the rubble of his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)
VICKERS: There's some pictures in there, but I don't think I'd ever get to them.
FARMER: Vickers was pleased to find his insulin injection kit to keep his diabetes in check as he figures out what to do next. The cleanup will be vast. The total damage hasn't even begun to be tallied. In Nashville alone, dozens of homes and businesses collapsed, and some of the most severe destruction is in the popular Five Points district of East Nashville. That's where Leigh Maples runs a musical instrument store out of a funky old house that today has a leaky roof but is in pretty good shape.
LEIGH MAPLES: You worry about the people. I mean, yeah, we're going to lose business, but we're OK. Yeah. You can't worry about that.
FARMER: You worry about people, she says, like the young couple killed just a few blocks away by flying debris.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Putnam County, Tenn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMPLY THREE'S "RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.