March 3 Tornado

It came 35 minutes after midnight on the morning of Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

The Sunday before that, on March 1, tornadoes weren’t part of the forecast. Looked like rain and storms but nothing alarming.

On Monday morning, some weather models indicated ingredients to make storms that might make tornadoes. It was just a few models, a minority of them really, saying a big storm was possible, and among those big storms, tornadoes are rare, major tornadoes, even rarer. It was and is all uncertainty. 

It was a normal Monday morning in March in the weather.

Then 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, it had our attention.

Forecast accuracy and confidence goes up the closer we get to an event, and the information was only starting to assemble into a coherent story. 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.”

“Stronger storms” does not always mean tornadoes. We were more likely to see hail and damaging winds. Tornadoes were the third-ranked worry because shear – one of dozens of essential tornadomaking ingredients – looked meh, but acknowledging the uncertainty of all this 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.

That Monday was itself a tornado 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. That event was well forecast, alarms about the day had been going on for days. The Storm Prediction Center called it “high risk” reserved for only the worst threats, schools closed, and a tornado outbreak tore up towns near the Ohio River. The March 2, 2012 supercell moved due east through Nashville around 4 PM on a Friday afternoon, producing large hail, but no Nashville tornado. I’ll never forget it. The storm was a classically structured supercell, with the “hook” in its SW quadrant, having just produced that Cheatham County tornado. It had all the ingredients you need to make a tornado, but we got no local tornado. @NashSevereWx went from 2,000 followers to 8,000 followers in one day. This storm left a large hail legacy, millions in damage.

On March 2, 2020, I tweeted a link to our Tornado Watch vs. Tornado Warning info page. How to prepare. What to do. Because things were getting worrying with 2012 on the brain.

From there, everything built, but by late afternoon/early evening Monday, things had not yet escalated, and we were wondering about the forecast, waiting for something to initiate. Storms were ongoing across the state line in Kentucky. Their tornado warnings were 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.

We waited.

At 8 PM, the latest hourly run of the High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) model arrived. It 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 there is often a disconnect between a model advertising a supercell capable of making a tornado and the actual making of a tornado. Already in place were basic supercell-favorable ingredients, but there wasn’t a storm yet. Instability was low; without even a storm to track it was hard to really believe a supercell was likely.

So, we waited.

Then I saw it on radar at 11:07 PM. A tornadic supercell. It wasn’t moving northeast like the others. It was due west of us, moving due east, and it was more than an hour away, coming right 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, and noted a 20% probability of a strong tornado for us. We started to worry about people who had already gone to bed.  

In 24 hours our overall area had gone from no risk, to 2%, to 20%.

Twenty minutes later that storm wasn’t turning northeast like the others were, like I was hoping. It was staying east.

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

At that point we knew it was a supercell, but was it going to be a tornado-producing supercell? Not all supercells produce tornadoes.

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. Storms are like most things. The closer you are to it, the better you can see it. Hail, damaging winds, tornado features becomes a bit clearer as storms near radar sites, but radar “vision” isn’t perfect.

Before midnight, as the supercell raced closer, it lost its “hook” on its SW side. The storm was falling apart, forming, then falling apart. We call that “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.

The March 2, 2012 tornado also cycled. It was in the process of reorganizing as it came over our collective heads.

This one, obviously, did not.

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.

Reports came in of large hail just west of us, the supercell’s updraft spitting it out size of a half dollar, some said ping pong ball sized. The large hail producing supercell 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. Now that was alarming. Baseballs? 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 that didn’t show its teeth until most people went to bed.

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

We had a camera on a building near the Gulch, pointed north. Andrew, while broadcasting on YouTube Live, looked to the left of that camera shot. There it was, live video of the tornado causing power flashes across Germantown, by Top Golf, and into East Nashville. The tornado moved left-to-right across the camera.

Meanwhile, there was no doubt what was happening by looking at the radar. It showed unmistakable, conclusive proof of debris the tornado was lofting. The tornado tosses parts of Nashville 18,000 feet in the air northeast, moving across our city, the sum of our fears. 

When it hit the TVA hub my computer system blipped, so I called Will, he sent a few tweets warning of the tornado as it 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. 

I was south of the tornado. I let my family sleep through it. Our dog never woke up, my in-laws slept through it, we weren’t in the path. By 6:30 AM, I crashed asleep, but 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 told me he was standing in East Nashville debris, and he started telling me about it what he saw. 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, about our coverage, about how forecast probabilities are not predictions, about 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. We are one part of the warning process. The process saves lives. 

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. In our shop, everything worked 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.

I wrote this in June, 2020.

FEELS. Sometimes it’s still happening, that [expletive] March 3 tornado, and I short out, become angry, sad, or tired. These reactions happen a bit less now, not because the feels don’t well up (they do), but because I can sense those feels rising, and I stop it before it gets out of hand. Post-traumatic stress is real, y’all. Either you acknowledge it and it gets better, or you suppress it and it wrecks you. 

I had several requests for interviews after that tornado, declined most of them (Will handled most of it). You heard Will on the radio at 104.5 after the tornado. We were interviewed for an article Steve Cavendish wrote for the Scene. I did radio and print for WPLN (public radio). I talked to meteorologists who’ve handled the stress of covering large destructive tornadoes, I’ve talked to a counselor, just to work through it all. I’m the son of an Army Ranger and a nurse and my personality is to compartmentalize during high stress events so I can think clearly and do the job, but I’m finding out about myself that in the aftermath, those compartments leak and I short circuit. 

Sometimes, I only see hot white heat, unfortunately that came out when Chad Withrow took a run at us on the radio, and I responded by flaming him on Twitter. We were, in the end, unfair to each other. I got emotional, then intensely rational and defensive, and it spiraled a bit out of control on Twitter before Will and Andrew came alongside me and kept me grounded. I am, to this day, proud of the work we did March 2 & 3, and grateful for all of you who stood in our defense. 

That tornado killed 2 people in East Nashville, two souls we cannot rebuild, and, that’s weighty, and it’s not forgotten. All that to say, now coming up on three months later, I am doing better, just not the same.