Instead of rebuilding after the fire of 1916 in East Nashville, many of the area’s wealthiest residents decided to move west. After a heyday in the mid-to-late 1800s, during which John Harding had purchased a plot of land and began farming and breeding horses (ultimately naming his plantation Belle Meade, or “beautiful meadow”), Belle Meade was on the decline in the early 1900s. As a result, property was cheap and plentiful, and along with investors who swooped in to develop the land, many of the wealthy victims of the 1916 fire took up residence in the area. And though they didn’t know it at the time, that migration may have spared many of them from further tragedy just 17 years later.
During the first third of March in 1933, the Nashville air was frigid, with temperatures struggling to get out of the 30s. After March 10, however, a warming trend began, and by March 13 thermostats reached a balmy 73 degrees, thanks to a warm, moist air mass positioned over the southeast United States. The warm, southerly air was so persistent, in fact, that temps barely dropped overnight on the March 13, and by 3 p.m. on March 14, it was 80 degrees out and it felt like summer had shoved spring aside and taken hold a full three months early.
The weather was remarkable — both because it was still too early in the year for such warm weather, but also because of how quickly the temperatures had shifted. But while many Nashville residents were likely outdoors enjoying the sun, few — if any — knew that a powerful cold front was barreling down from the Great Lakes and about to ram head-first into the warm air mass.
Fifteen years later, in March of 1948, the first official tornado forecast and warning was made by two United States Air Force personnel stationed at Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City, OK. On March 20, 1948, the base’s Air Weather Service had failed to note atmospheric instability and moisture content that was present over the state. The forecast was for dry conditions, but what actually occurred were severe thunderstorms, wind gusts of 92 miles per hour and a tornado that caused around $10 million in damage to military aircraft. When atmospheric conditions on the 25th were nearly identical to those that produced the tornado just days earlier, Capt. Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush (who were both working as forecasters on the based) issued a tornado forecast and warning for the area. They were reluctant to do it, as they didn’t really believe a tornado would hit the same area again so soon, but when a twister touched down around 6:00 pm that evening, it marked a milestone in the history of weather forecasting in America.
But in East Nashville, on March 14, 1933, there was no such warning.
It was after dark when the thunderstorms started, and when the winds first whipped into a funnel, it was just outside of downtown, near Charlotte Pike and 51st Avenue. There wasn’t a lot damage at that point, but as the tornado moved east, it was swiftly intensifying. It shook glass from the windows of the State Capitol and then damaged several buildings just north of the Public Square as it barely bypassed the Weather Bureau, which was then located in the Stahlman Building at Third Avenue and Union Street. But that tornado was practically a breeze compared to the monster of a storm that swept across the Cumberland and ransacked East Nashville. Mark Rose, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, wrote this about the disaster:
The path [of the tornado] widened from 200 to 400 yards, and damaged a row of four-story factory buildings along First Street, and a large portion of a brick wall of the building occupied by the National Casket Company, located at Second Street and Woodland. From this point, the path of destruction spread out to a width of 600 to 800 yards. For three miles, the tornado tore through a district of homes, churches, schools, and stores. Weather Bureau meteorologist Roger M. Williamson, whose home on Eastland Avenue narrowly escaped the storm’s destruction, reported, “For a terrifying fraction of a minute…walls, roofs, chimneys, garages and trees were crashing only a few yards away.” Property damage was extensive, numbering 1,400 homes, 16 churches, 36 stores, five factories, four schools, one library, and a lodge hall.
Prior to the 1933 tornado — and based on the fact that tornadoes tend to travel from southwest to northeast, gaining momentum and intensity over flat land — Nashville residents felt insulated from tornado threats by the row of hills that border the city on the south and west. That theory was shaken by the nearly $2 million of losses incurred that March day, as well as the 11 people who lost their lives. But again, as with the great fire of 1916, the spirit and community of Nashville shone bright — even in the midst of the darkest circumstances.
Until the area was declared stable by civil officers on the morning of March 16, East Nashville was flooded with police officers, National Guardsmen, volunteers, firefighters, Red Cross workers, Boy Scouts and more who pitched in to restore order during the crisis. They worked tirelessly to help loved ones find missing relatives; provide food, clothes and shelter to victims; and clear out debris. And despite working nearly 36 hours straight in some cases, all refused to be compensated for their efforts.
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