The morning of April 16, 1998, tornado warnings started coming in over the radio. It was highly unusual how many tornado warnings were issued that day. In fact, 13 tornadoes hit Middle Tennessee. Anyone with a radio was jaded by the warnings when the F3 tornado hit downtown Nashville at 3:30 p.m. This tornado originated near the intersection of Charlotte Pike and 46th Avenue. The tornado path headed right into downtown, crossed the Cumberland River and picked up steam as it hit East Nashville and moved on to Donelson. The tornado left 35 buildings in downtown structurally unsound and damaged more than 300 homes and businesses in East Nashville, including devastating historic Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church. As you don’t usually hear about a tornado hitting a city’s downtown area, this one got plenty of news coverage. Residents of the time remember turning on the TV to CBS, NewsChannel 5, and being mesmerized by Chris Clark, the former Channel 5 anchor, writing with Sharpie on white poster board to update viewers on live TV, as the tornado had knocked out the station’s audio feed. And, many of us watched and read, not wanting to turn the channel.
As someone caught in this tornado, I can say that it didn’t have the classic funnel twister look. It was almost a mile wide and looked like a wall of dark clouds, from ground to sky, coming straight at you. I was listening to NPR in my car while headed west on Broadway out of downtown. As I was near where Broadway crosses over Interstate 40, NPR mentioned a possible tornado at the airport. I was worried for my husband who worked out here, and then the station went dead. I realized that the wall of clouds coming, that I had been watching off to my right just a few hundred yards north of where I was, was the tornado and a decision had to be made: abandon my car or keep driving. Then, an interstate sign flew through the air and missed my windshield by inches. Decision made. I pulled into the car dealership parking lot next to me on Broadway and hurried inside. I rode out the storm with all their employees huddled in the basement.
There was one fatality attributed to this tornado. Vanderbilt’s ROTC was having a picnic at Centennial Park when the tornado hit and a tree fell on a student which resulted in his death on May 4. Nashville residents and Vanderbilt students lined up to give blood in the aftermath of the tornado. East Nashville neighbors came out in full force to support each other and collection jars were seen in many locally owned businesses to raise money for neighbors who lost their homes. I remember that the cashier at the downtown Walgreens on 5th Avenue lost her home and the collection jar there was filled each day in hopes of making a dent for her to recover.
The fact that the tornado was coming and no one at Centennial Park knew (remember, this was before smartphones) was part of the cry for a city-wide alarm system. This is why today when we are under tornado warnings, 93 sirens are heard blaring across the city. (source, source)
This article was originally part of this StyleBlueprint article: 5 Nashville Disasters that Changed the City.
Here is a great video all about the 1998 Nashville Tornado: