In this March 26, 2020, photo, a utility worker repairs a power line in Cookeville, Tenn. People still reeling from the deadly twisters that hit the state on March 3 now have to confront life in the age of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When Jose Cojom's house collapsed around his family in a tornado that struck after midnight, he knew his life was going to get much harder. But that was just the beginning. A few weeks later, the restaurant where he cooks closed its doors because of the coronavirus.

Now, living in a rental apartment, Cojom's family faces an uncertain future, unsure whether to rebuild or move on.

“The tornado was a monster, almost killed us,” Cojom said. “Now, I'm off work for two weeks. It kind of hurts me because it makes me stay home and think about all the things that we went through.”

Like thousands of other Middle Tennesseans, Cojom's life has been upended by back-to-back disasters. Putnam County residents still reeling from the deadly twisters of March 3 now have to confront life in the age of coronavirus.

The storms that tore through the region killed 25 people — 19 in Putnam County, 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Nashville — and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings. Homes where people had been sleeping were demolished, sending families to hotels and shelters. Donations poured in, electrical and construction crews mobilized, and volunteers handed out supplies and served meals.

Then the coronavirus pandemic complicated the recovery efforts. The virus has sickened more than 2,800 in Tennessee and more than 30 in Putnam County, according to the state health department. Residents who had united to help tornado-stricken neighbors quickly retreated to their houses. Volunteers who came from as far as Kansas went back home.

The emergence of COVID-19 closed business and schools and set off a wave of hotel cancellations. As the virus encroaches on the county where twisted metal still hangs in trees along Interstate 40, Mayor Randy Porter said debris cleanup could take several more weeks.

“It’s been tiring and a little stressful, but we’re working through it,” Porter said. “We live in a loving, come-together community.”

At Cookeville Regional Medical Center in the county seat, doctors and nurses have gone from treating about 80 patients injured in the tornado to preparing for coronavirus. Visitation has been restricted, elective surgeries postponed. One hospital employee died and six others lost everything in the tornado, hospital CEO Paul Korth said. Tornado damage closed a medical supplies warehouse in Mt. Juliet, and the hospital is supplementing its limited supply of ventilators and masks.

“We are trying to be very cautious and very proactive on how we use those,” Korth said.

The hospital had five COVID-19 patients Thursday, spokeswoman Melahn Finley said.

In most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and may be life-threatening.

For Eric Grooms, whose family saw their home reduced to its foundation in the storms, the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus have made a return to normal impossible.

Grooms’ wife owns a salon, now temporarily closed. His industrial filter service has lost business.

Grooms said they are lucky to have a rental house but with shops shuttered, it's been hard to make it feel homey. Restaurants and other distractions that initially took their minds off the destruction aren’t open.

Grooms has been told he can't rebuild until next year at the earliest but expects to stay in the neighborhood.

“The whole neighborhood is just so tight, so close that we can leave the place, but it’s hard to leave the people,” he said.

More than anything, though, he wants to restore some normalcy for his 6-year-old daughter.

“We can’t take her to the bounce house. You can’t do this. You can’t do that,” Grooms said. “It makes the tornado, that environment afterward, the shock, it just prolongs it.”

Cojom, the 42-year-old Cookeville father and cook, faces more uncertainty. Mauricio's Italian Restaurant, where he works, is closed for at least another week, maybe more.

The storm's terror still lingers for his family. In the dead of night, their house shook violently, the roof collapsed on him and a wall fell on one daughter. '

At first, he thought it was a bad dream. He held tightly to his bed to keep from blowing away, and his wife and their other girl hid in their crumbling bathroom. Somehow, they all escaped with only cuts and bruises.

They left it all behind. They're living in a three bedroom apartment, their rent covered by home insurance for about six months. With food in the refrigerator, they're staying home as much as possible.

He doesn't know when he will get his job back, but in an odd way he feels up for the challenge.

“I don't know what's next,” he said. “We've just got to stay strong.”


Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee. Associated Press reporters Kristin M. Hall and Travis Loller contributed.


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