Hurricane evacuees land in Cookeville


September 13, 2017

"It was like a seven-hour tornado."

That's how Kenny Whitmire described what he went through as Hurricane Irma slammed into St. John,  U.S. Virgin Islands.

Whitmire was among half a dozen people who landed at the Upper Cumberland Regional Airport Tuesday afternoon after being transported from St. John. Country singer Kenny Chesney, whose island home was destroyed in the hurricane, has been using his private plane to help people evacuate.

"We got the worst of it," said Whitmire. "They reckoned that we had 225 mph gusts. We're alive because of Kenny Chesney."

Whitmire and some friends spent nearly seven hours in a closet at Chesney's home as they sought shelter from the storm.

"We were holding on for dear life," he said. "We took rotations holding mattresses against the door. The rain was blowing in sideways. There was no way to keep it out. And then it was over. It was divine intervention."

Kate Hanna was in that closet with Whitmire.

"We had 17 people. Four kids, 13 adults and five dogs, and we all ended up in the closet," she said. "The place that we were going to stay at was destroyed, so thank God for Kenny."

Evacuees from the first several flights on Chesney's plane landed in Nashville, but accommodations became scarce so Chesney's pilot, Alan Jackson (not the country singer), turned to fellow members of The River Community Church for help.

"Alan and his family have been attending our church and so when he knew that he was going to have some folks that might need a night's stay, he reached out to us," said Bryan Vaughn, associate pastor. "We just sent out some emails to some of our folks to let them know what was going on, and they stepped up."

Most of the evacuees were going to stay for just a night or two in the Cookeville area before moving on.

"I'm going to go to New York and regroup,"  said Rick Ayre, who worked as a yacht captain on the island. "I employ about 30 people, so I got off the island to get some resources, and then come back and start working to rebuild. There's no infrastructure right now. St. John is just a complete write-off. It's completely flattened."

Irma was classified as a Category 5 hurricane when it struck the island. News reports noted that damage on St. John included homes and hotels that were swept off their foundations and park lands that were stripped bare of vegetation. 

"It's going to take some time to rebuild," said Blaze Bruckner, who worked at an island restaurant. "They're definitely going to need more skilled workers to get things restored. By us leaving, it helps the island because we're not consuming resources."

Vaughn said church members who showed up at the airport Tuesday with warm jackets and cold drinks for the evacuees were just living their faith.

"It's an opportunity to serve," he said.