March 3 Tornado

Two days before was Sunday, March 1, and tornadoes weren’t part of the forecast. Looked like rain and storms.

Monday morning, some data indicated ingredients to make storms that might make tornadoes. When I say data, I mean weather models, forecaster discussions. It was just some data, that minority of data said a big storm was possible, and among those storms, tornadoes are rare, major tornadoes, even rarer. It was and is all uncertainty. 

Woke up, normal Monday morning, the Storm Prediction Center issued a 2% probability of a tornado within a large area, us included. 2% is like milk, it’s in your fridge, but how many trips to the fridge to do you grab it? Still, it was an signal escalation, had our attention.

Forecast accuracy and confidence goes up the closer we get to an event. At 1:38 PM on Monday, our blog was published, it said 

“The stronger storms will begin to move into our area between 11PM-1AM.”

Tornadoes weren’t the primary threat, hail and damaging winds were. Tornadoes were the third-ranked worry because shear looked meh, but acknowledging the uncertainty we wrote that an increase in shear would raise tornado worries.

Things may change, the blog said:

Don’t disconnect from future revisions to this.

March 2 is a storm anniversary. I tweeted about March 2, 2012, the 8 year anniversary of another due east-moving, tornadic supercell that produced an EF-1 tornado in Cheatham County. It moved due east through Nashville around 4 PM on a Friday afternoon, producing large hail, but no Nashville tornado. I’ll never forget it. @NashSevereWx went from 2,000 followers to 8,000 followers in one day, but that was a “high risk” day, schools closed, and a tornado outbreak tore up towns near the Ohio River.

I tweeted a link to our Tornado Watch vs. Tornado Warning info page. How to prepare. What to do. 

From there, everything built, but by late afternoon/early evening Monday, things had not yet escalated. Storms were ongoing across the state line in Kentucky. Their tornado warnings going off in local TV markets, so Nashville-based TV meteorologists were interrupting network TV, prompting some of the worst people on social media to thumb out tweets and Facebook messages protesting interruptions to the Bachelor. I took to Twitter to use the Bachelor as a way to storytell about how models varied for us, the models still weren’t sure what would happen here. 

Early Monday evening we were asking everyone to “Check back” for updates. Stuff can change, tornadoes possible.

At 8 PM, the High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) model was alarming. I don’t want to get lost in the meteorology but if that model was right there was reason to be concerned. But the HRRR isn’t always right, and the process of supercell tornado formation isn’t totally understood. Already in place were basic supercell-favorable ingredients, but there wasn’t a storm yet. Instability was low; a supercell wasn’t on my mind.

I was a line of storms in W KY would slowly drop southeast into Nashville around 3 or 4 AM; meanwhile, we were sitting in a nervous storm environment with plenty of shear and questionable instability which fuels storms and makes them severe.

The only storms out to our west were moving north of us

Then I saw it on radar at 11:07 PM. A tornadic supercell, this one wasn’t moving northeast like the others. It was moving due east and it was more than an hour away, coming at us.

I sent the first tweet about it at 11:12 PM and glued myself to the radar.

At 11:16 PM, the Storm Prediction Center announced a Tornado Watch. The Tornado Watch singled out that supercell, noted a 20% probability of a strong tornado for us. 

We’d been in no risk, to 2%, to 20% in about 24 hours.

Twenty minutes later that storm wasn’t turning northeast. It was staying east.

At 11:35 PM, I tweeted If you’re not already asleep, stay up for this

It was obviously a supercell, but was it going to be a tornado-producing supercell? Not all supercells produce tornadoes.

You have to understand as the supercell moved east, it got closer to three radar sites, one in Hopkinsville, the big one in Nashville at Old Hickory, the third, a low-range, high-updating site near Nolensville, TBNA. It’s like most things. The closer it is, the better you can see it. Hail, damaging winds, tornado becomes a bit clearer as it nears, but radar “vision” isn’t perfect.

Before midnight, the supercell developed, then lost, a “hook” on its SW side. It was falling apart, forming, then falling apart. We call it “cycling,” the idea being the bad part comes back around on a revolution. It was probably producing a tornado, tornado would lift, the storm would reorganize, reproduce the tornado. Cycling.

At 12:05 AM, about a half hour before the tornado redeveloped in our city, I tweeted

Those in Nashville, esp N of I-40. Time to top off your phone’s charge and prepare for a warning, either severe thunderstorm or tornado. No one should be driving N of I-40 in Nashville after 12:30 AM. Too much rain, hail, and potential for a tornado incoming.

Then hail reports, large hail, the supercell’s updraft spitting it out size of a half dollar, some said ping pong ball sized. It was about to move into Nashville so a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued. This was 12:11 AM.

Andrew went live on YouTube Live to cover the Severe Thunderstorm Warning, but all eyes were on the SW quadrant, would a “hook” form there? Would a tornado drop?

Baseball sized hail in Dickson was reported at 12:19 AM. That was alarming. We rarely get hail that size in Middle Tennessee. This was not a normal late winter/early spring Tennessee storm. But the last hailer that size that took this track did not drop a tornado, and the radar data on the SW quadrant was inconclusive, the storm was disorganized.

We hoped “just hail.”

At 12:29 AM,  the part of the supercell that eventually produced the tornado — the SW side — crossed into Davidson County. Radar did not indicate tornado. The supercell was doing what it had been doing for an hour.

At 12:30 AM, I noticed radar indicated rotation tightening up a bit, consistent with what it had been doing, suggested something might be close to happening.

At 12:33 AM, I tweeted 

Watching Bells Bend to Scottsboro very closely as rotation there tightens up….winds also increasing there. Those in Fontanel, Haynes, Bordeaux, Talbot’s Corner heads up

The Tornado Warning was issued at 12:35 AM, and looking at radar, there it was. Suddenly, the tornado was on top of us, in Bells Bend, it had formed in the 60-90 seconds that occur between radar scans. We knew exactly where it was on radar. It did not develop slowly, and it was s p e e d i n g east into the city around 60 MPH.

And now, we have a tornado on the ground after midnight on a work/school night going through a heavily populated part of our city. 

Andrew was still on YouTube Live, pivoting his Severe Thunderstorm Warning coverage for hail to this tornado.

He broadcasted live video of the tornado causing power flashes across Germantown, by Top Golf, and into East Nashville. We could see it move left to right across our north-looking camera in mid-town.

As it moved east, we could see on radar debris the tornado was lofting, tossing it 18,000 feet in the air northeast, moving across our city, the sum of our fears. 

When it hit the TVA hub I had a power flash, I called Will, he sent a few tweets as the tornado moved across I-24/65 into East Nashville. I was back up and on-line in a hurry.

We tweeted “confirmed” tornado. Legit tornado. We went all caps. We followed it on radar into Wilson County as it dug into people’s homes, businesses, and lives.

After it crossed out of Nashville, there was still a big storm lingering north of Briley Parkway producing cloud to ground lightning. My immediate concern was people coming out of their wreckage, no power so no lights, subject to lightning strikes, tripping over downed, charged power lines. 

We are one part of the warning process. The process saves lives. 

We can’t judge the performance of the process with hindsight. Hindsight not producing actionable information for future events is worthless. We can only try to make it better with the information we have available.  When to press the warning button is a hard decision – here it was pressed when there was reason to do so. There’s a tension between overwarning causing complacency, and underwarning and putting someone at risk. But if you’re in the warning seat, you need radar evidence or a report of a tornado on the ground to issue a warning.

Not all rotation produces tornadoes. The atmosphere is constantly changing and undersampled. And the conditions under which supercells produce tornadoes and do not produce tornadoes are not understood. 

I’m proud of the work we did. TV meteorologists were on it. The tornado warnings were issued when they should have been. But there is always room for improvement. The emphasis on social science is new: what makes people shelter, what information do they need to take protective action, what do they believe to be true that isn’t. We need to understand how to distinguish supercells that produce tornadoes vs those that don’t. We need the WEA phone alerts to work. We need weather radios programmed correctly and that system to never fail. We need to sample our atmosphere more accurately so we know what may be coming with more certainty. We need a bigger commitment to more accurate weather models. 

I let my family sleep through the tornado. Our dog never woke up, our in-laws slept through it, we weren’t in the path. I’d finished live-tweeting the before, during, and aftermath of the Nashville tornado that touched down in Bells Bend just after 12:30 AM then went east, you know the rest. Before sacking out I left my wife a note, handwritten, so when she woke up she wouldn’t wake me up:

Supercell produced long tracked tornado

6 dead; 2 in East Nashville. Storm hit metro.

Turn on local news.

I saw sunrise.

Will try to sleep.

Not going to office.

Went to bed at 6:30 AM.

Steve Cavendish’s phone call woke me up at 11:30 AM, March 3, 2020.

Steve’s a journalist, former Nashville Scene editor, now Scene contributor, relaunching the Nashville Banner. I answer Steve’s calls.

Steve probably remembers that 11:30 AM call better than I do. He was standing in East Nashville debris, telling me about it. Pretty sure I interrupted him. I’d gone to bed hearing two people were killed in East Nashville, how were they killed? He told me what happened. They were outside when killed by debris.

You don’t want to know the rest.

The next week was a blur. I have a lot to say about that tornado, our coverage, forecast probabilities aren’t predictions, PTSD, recency bias, anxiety, response, IP theft, and that stuff, all variably important topics best left for another time.

Right now, this is my attempt to respond to the stories you’ve shared with us, your close tornado encounters. To those hit who’ve reached out to say our tweets were valuable, to so many of you who poured one time financial support and monthly financial commitments into NashSevereWx. To what’s been said to us, about us, to the article Steve wrote in the Scene. Because when someone says thank you, they want to be heard.

We hear you.

Every message, personal story, donation we get hits me in the feels. Not just me. Will and Andrew too. We feel this response, y’all, we don’t know what to do with it. These thoughts and emotions come flying up.

Relief. We are so happy you’re OK. NashSevereWx started almost ten years ago, worried about a local major tornado, and after it happened we’re hearing and reading stories that we contributed to your safety, or were a comfort in a storm.

Loss. We lost two people in East Nashville. We can’t fix that. Some got hurt, others lost pets, scattered in the storm, hopefully to be reunited. Some lost income, others jobs, some temporarily, others permanently. Some of you lost what you knew. Some neighbors won’t return to their homes, others will rebuild, it’ll just be different. In the middle of the night your lives were flipped and won’t be the same. You’ve got anxiety, PTSD, your kids are scared of thunder now. I grieve these losses with you. I hate tornadoes, this is why.

Guilt. Will said it best on 104.5 FM, pointing out our messages and broadcasts on Twitter that night were made possible by the National Weather Service office in Nashville, by the donations we’ve received from our community. Our tornado coverage was our darkest moment and brightest hour, the payoff of an investment first deposited by Tom Johnstone at NWS-Nashville, and carried forward by Larry Vannozzi, Trevor Boucher, Sam Shamburger, Krissy Hurley, among others there. Where is the light shined on them? Where is the credit to the community for supporting NashSevereWx? I’m uncomfortable accepting thanks for something we had only a part in bringing you that day. I am proud of what we did, I really am, but I feel guilty when any article singles us out. This wasn’t done alone. It was a group effort.

Community. We came together to love, cleanup, rebuild, then COVID-19 arrived and we have to social distance. Don’t forget about the tornado, y’all, as you do the right thing amidst this pandemic. Remember the community that responded so well to the tornado is the same community that will sacrifice and come together for others in this pandemic.

Motivation. Everything worked, not perfectly, behind the scenes. We committed to having cameras a few years ago, across town, to verify a tornado. One camera captured the tornado, and Andrew used it live on YouTubeLive during his broadcast, verifying the tornado. This gave confidence in saying the tornado was confirmed, there we were watching it live on a camera.

Gratitude. To all of you, thankful. We love our @NashSevereWx project, that you let us know it’s valuable to you is the dividend on our investment. Thank you.

I picked this off the street in Five Points. It was among the debris. The ends are sharp, the piece snapped off by the tornado and flung through 165 MPH winds. It’s what inside the tornado carries that kills.

It’s what’s inside the community that heals.