A road separates properties filled with debris Tuesday, March 3, 2020, near Lebanon, Tenn. Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding more than 140 buildings and burying people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

On Monday, Lauren Robinson Neal looked at her pots of orchids — red, white, and pink blossoms exploding from green stems — and declared that they, and she, had seen enough of winter.

"My orchids are as ready for spring as I am," she posted.

Hours later, something else entirely arrived.

An EF-4 tornado.

Tuesday's midnight tornadoes that crashed through middle Tennessee destroyed Lauren's Cookeville, Tennessee, neighborhood.

Her home, flowering with orchids and life, is now gone.

"We lost everything," she posted.

That night, her teenage daughter Ella Jane, who is hearing impaired, was sleeping; when Lauren got the alert, she ran to her bedroom, yelling, as she told Nashville's News Channel 5, through tears:

"I'm looking at her face and the whole front of the house was gone and a door came and hit me. I was just holding that door while getting hit with everything," Lauren said. "Eating insulation and wood and thinking, 'I don't think I'm going to survive this.'"

The tornado threw her daughter across the yard, 60 feet away, and into the neighbor's pool. (She's bruised and banged up, but alive and well.) Two dogs survived, one died. Photo albums were found in the hospital parking lot, miles away. Her home, torn down to the foundation.

Someone found her yearbook in the rubble in a neighbor's yard.

Actually, it was our yearbook.

Red Bank High.

Lauren and I — and many of you — graduated from Red Bank. (Class of 1992.) You forget many things in life, but high school isn't one of them, so even though I haven't seen Lauren in years, the memories I have of her — vibrant, bold and loving, full of life — remain strong.

A student-athlete at Tennessee Tech University, she now manages its Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. A mother, partner with Brandon Lee, Crossfit competitor, she's still having that magnified effect on people.

"Lauren is a friend, a mentor, encourager, the strongest, most resilient — never met a stranger, most down to earth, optimistic, salt of the earth people you will ever meet," one friend posted. "She would literally give you anything if she could."

And now, she's lost everything.

Well, not everything.

As the sun rose Wednesday morning, Cookeville was the most devastated place in Tennessee.

And the most connected.

The most loving.

Following the tornadoes came compassion and empathy. In the wake of natural disasters, we remember each other. Friends, family, strangers, reaching out, donating, not just to Lauren, but to all victims.

I have seen this for years, especially after the 2011 tornadoes here: our instinctual response is not to build a wall, but to reach out, with lifelines, to our fellow brothers and sisters.

After the tornado, something else appears.


People got her daughter new hearing aids. Brought food, water, bulldozers, gift cards and garbage bags. Friends set up a GoFundMe fundraiser. The Salvation Army, Red Cross and community foundations in Putnam County are all receiving donations from friends and strangers.

All summed up in five little words:

We are here for you.

In Cookeville, Lauren, her boyfriend and daughter are trying to piece their life back together. (Where would you even begin?) Her family, including sister Julie, raced to town.

Thursday, Lauren turned to Julie, asking a favor.

I need your help, she said.


Help me find how to donate to help other Cookeville families, Lauren said.

"That's Lauren," Julie said. "Always giving, but she has a dig-deep gear that amazes me."

A few days ago, before the tornadoes, a friend wrote, asking if we could gain a new perspective on the spreading coronavirus.

"Could this catastrophic example cause people to realize that if they do something kind or considerate, could that abundance also be shared exponentially?" he wrote.

Yes, I believe so.

We are just as capable of spreading ease as well as disease; it is not just viral contagions that spread — one person, to another, to another — but also loving kindness and brave empathy.

On devastated Middle Tennessee land, life will bloom again.

It is people who are making it grow.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at

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David Cook