A dog disappeared for 54 days after a deadly Tennessee tornado. ‘Bella’ was reunited with her family on Sunday

Matthew Cappucci

THE WASHINGTON POST – Following a deadly EF4 tornado that struck Cookeville, Tennessee on March 2, good news was hard to come by in Middle Tennessee. Nineteen were killed and scores more injured after the furious 175-mph twister carved a path of destruction through the sleeping town shortly after 2am a day later.

But, sometimes after disaster, communities come together and bring out the best in people. As daylight dawned in Cookeville after that horrific night and the scope of the devastation became clear, Sarah Romeyn knew she had to help. She learned a family had lost their home and their dog, Bella, in the tornado. Romeyn’s now credited with reuniting Bella with her aching family, some 54 days after the life-changing storm blew through.

The heartwarming reunion was more than a month in the making. Last Sunday, Bella – an Australian shepherd that went missing from the home of Eric and Faith Johnson – was returned to her family.

Bella had awoken the pair and their children on the night of the storm moments before the tornado struck. Seconds later, their house was levelled – reduced to rubble. The family escaped with their lives, but as they emerged from the wreckage following the storm’s passage, they realised something was missing: Bella.

Miles away, Romeyn – who loosely knew the Johnsons – was unaware that anything out of the ordinary had occurred in town.

Bella, an Australian shepherd, is reunited with owner Eric Johnson. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“I woke up once during the night to thunder, but I went back to sleep not thinking anything had happened,” she said.

It wasn’t until the next morning when she awoke without electricity or cellular service that she realised something was wrong. “When I went to leave for work, I joked and said ‘welp, honey, if this is Armageddon, I love you. Otherwise, I’ll see you tonight’.”

Only when Romeyn turned on the radio did she discover what had happened.

She learned through Facebook that Eric and Faith Johnson, and their children survived the storm. But when Elizabeth Ramsay informed Romeyn that their dog Bella was missing, Romeyn knew she could help. “I was like ‘you know what Elizabeth, that I can take care of,’” said Romeyn.

Romeyn teamed up with AARF – All About Rescue and Fixin’, Inc – in Cookeville to borrow surveillance cameras, and, drawing on the “trapping” experience of Sarah Fostello at Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, set out to bring Bella home.

“There were still so many people doing search and recovery… and so much activity that we knew Bella was going to kind of lay low,” said Romeyn. Bella, described as a “skittish” dog, had been spotted near downtown Cookeville about two weeks after the tornado.

With Bella presumed to be in a commercialised area, the stakes were higher.

“Dogs that are scared just run, and they don’t know if they’re running into a six lane highway,” said Romeyn. But that’s precisely when the fallout of covid-19 shuttered businesses and left daily routines grinding to a halt.

Romeyn spread the word about Bella’s status, even soliciting tips with the help of the Putnam County Police Department. She urged residents not to approach Bella on their own, knowing how easily Bella would spook.

Over the next several weeks, however, hope was dwindling. “The leads on Bella really dried up,” said Romeyn. She pressed on.

Then a glimmer of hope appeared. “I got a phone call from one of our friends Karen, who owns Cumberland Pet Grooming,” recalled Romeyn. “She said ‘Sarah, Bella’s here, she’s out behind the shop!’ “

Romeyn, who was downtown retrieving files from her office, returned the next day with cameras, food, and a steadfast determination to bring Bella home.

Ordinarily trapping a dog – particularly a traumatizsd one – can take days of building trust. Romeyn knew that they’d have only one shot. “You’re not going to have a second chance,” she said. When Bella emerged from an alleyway for the cheeseburger, Romeyn had an idea.

“[The alleyway] is between two buildings. Maybe 100 feet long…at one end is probably this four-foot opening, it tapers off at the other end to maybe a foot wide, it’s super narrow.” She knew she could trap Bella in there – but she’d need a good deal of help.

She called her husband and Bella’s owner, Eric Johnson – emotional at hearing Bella had been located.

“We made our plan. Eric went to the wider end [of the alleyway] where the gate was. I went to the smaller end since I knew that I could lock that myself. He blocked off the crawl space underneath the gate.”

With that, the team had Bella in an enclosed space. That’s when she started to panic.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Romeyn. But then, Eric Johnson called out to her. “You could kind of see her stop, and you could see the wheels turning… there was something so familiar.”

And then – it clicked. Bella was home. “She turned herself inside out,” said Romeyn.