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A TVA team member surveys storm damage in Middle Tennessee on Dec. 11, 2023

This Area Is My Home

TVA Partners on Storm Response

Saturday afternoon Jim Gray got word of a storm bearing down on his home in Dickson, Tennessee, about 40 miles west of Nashville. A possible tornado. He immediately flipped on his generator, and his computer.

The alerts grew more alarming as night approached: Not one tornado, but many. Downed trees. Downed power lines. Neighbors’ homes destroyed. People injured. Maybe worse.

Then, as darkness set in, friends sent messages about something surreal: An enormous fireball, just north of Nashville. A great billow of orange flame that momentarily lit up the night. People across the area saw it, and soon people around the world did, too. “Explosion and fireball seen as storm sweeps through Tennessee,” the BBC’s headline read.

What interested Gray, though, were the flickers of blue light arcing into the sky before the fireball. “That’s electrical,” he thought.

After two decades handling electricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority, he knew someone outside Nashville – someone at the base of that fireball – could use help.

He called Shane Bandy, an electrician foreman with TVA’s Nashville crew. Gray said he found him hunkered down in his basement with his family, but the electrician told him, “I’ll go as soon as the tornado has passed.”

Bandy quickly assembled a dozen TVA team members from Nashville and Murfreesboro, and they headed to the scene.

By Monday the storm had passed, and people in Middle Tennessee began to measure the damage.

More than a dozen tornadoes had torn through, killing at least six people and injuring more than 80. The tornadoes touched down in Dickson and ripped northward through towns up to Clarksville, near and past the Kentucky state line. Power lines lay across roads, and carloads of survivors drove past them, some looking to receive help and others looking to give it.

Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency at a news conference in Madison, where people had watched the fireball erupt. “While we cannot erase the pain and the difficulty and the heartbreak of what’s happened to you,” he said, “we can come alongside you.”

Nearby, as the governor spoke, Jason Wofford needed a little help.

He’s a maintenance supervisor at Nashville Electric Service, and he surveyed the breathtaking wreckage of the widely seen explosion.

NES keeps a set of oil breakers — enormous oil-filled tanks, in which a gigantic circuit breaker is submerged — in a TVA substation. During the storm, a surge of power traveled along a line into the station yard and down into the oil tank, where it damaged the breaker.

Then electricity started to arc though the oil inside, boiling it to a mist, building pressure until it blew a vast geyser of burning oil into the sky. The explosion ripped the welded top off the 1,000-gallon tank and flung it in an arc into the yard. It bent steel I-beams, and left the substation’s structure blackened with soot.

Wofford and his crew had started to siphon the remaining oil from the NES tank when another crew arrived to help. “We had TVA guys, maintenance,” Wofford said. “They worked with us all throughout the night to get all the oil out. I don’t even know who they were.”

It was Bandy’s crew. He had pulled them together as the storm passed, and headed toward Madison.

On Monday afternoon, Gray and Jerry Ake, the general manager of transmission maintenance in TVA’s North Region, took in the damage. “I’ve seen a lot,” Ake said, looking at the bent steel I-beams. “But this is impressive.”

As they walked, their boots crunched in the gravel that lines the substation grounds, now coated in a layer of oil that settled like rain after the explosion.

“It’s not environmentally sound, like this,” Gray said, so his crew brought in a Bobcat earthmover that could navigate the confined substation structure and haul out oil-soaked gravel.

Around the electrical equipment, Gray said with a grin, “it’ll be hand-digging.”

TVA’s own system remained secure and stable, weathering the storms with moderate damage. Gray said that’s thanks to crew leaders like Bandy, who did a “fantastic job at marshaling his crew and the other crews that have been sent to assist him.”

It felt right to turn, then, to help his NES counterparts, Gray said, “because they’ve got enough on their minds right now.”

Jack Baxter, NES vice president of Power Systems Operations, told area media that power will likely be fully restored toward the end of the week.

"Our hearts are with the communities and families impacted,” Justin Maierhofer, TVA's regional vice president of the North Region, said. “Our TVA Regional team in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky stands ready to support, assist and partner with our customers and local communities.”

Clarksville Department of Electricity sustained the most significant damage, along with Gibson Electric, Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation, Middle Tennessee Electric and Pennyrile Rural Electric Co-Op.

And, of course, NES. The oil breaker links NES with one of its most important customers, a DuPont facility in Old Hickory, by a 161,000-volt line. TVA line crews will help NES rebuild the downed power lines to DuPont.

Helping repair that link and offer a helping hand to partners and neighbors in need comes naturally to Gray and others who work at TVA.

“This area is my home,” Gray said. “I had to come.” 

Photo Gallery

Work crews use cranes to lift transmission lines that were downed by storms

Workers use an excavator to move a tangle of metal debris

Homes damaged by a tornado that tore through Middle Tennessee

A crane is maneuvered into place to move a downed transmission tower.

Work crews walk amid debris and downed power lines in a neighborhood northwest of Nashville

A worker signals to the operator of an excavator used to move metal debris

Two workers wearing hard hats survey damage from a storm

Piles of debris surround tornado-damaged homes

A worker drags a downed insulator away from transmission tower debris

A trio of workers wearing orange and yellow safety jackets walk to a parked truck

TVA employees survey damage at substation

A TVA employee points to substation components that were damaged by a storm

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Learn how you can stay safe around downed power lines at the TVA Safety page.

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