As the day changed to Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020, a single super cell traveling nearly the length of Tennessee dropped a series of tornados from Benton Co., through the heart of Nashville, and ultimately laying waste to entire neighborhoods in Cookeville and Putnam Co.
At the time of this post, there have been 25 fatalities caused by this storm, making this the second deadliest tornado event in Tennessee since record keeping began in 1950. With any catastrophic loss of life, homes, and business, survivors are left with a lot of questions.
I would like to address the most absurd of these questions that a few extremely unintelligent persons asks: “Why weren’t they warned?”
James Spann, chief meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala., has a name for those people:
The CBS Evening News (briefly) tried to spin the same tired headline that the victims of these deadly storms received “no warning”. After they were lambasted by the entire weather enterprise for that completely false narrative, that post disappeared. (To my knowledge, CBS Evening News made no attempt to correct it.)
But James Spann is right. They’re nitwits, and the greater Nashville community — plus Cookeville — had almost an hours notice that this dangerous storm was moving in. Tornado warnings were issued. Sirens were sounded. Mobile phones blared their alert tones.
But was this enough?
If God forbid you ever find yourself in the path of nature’s fury, your beloved outdoor sirens will fail you, and your smartphone app is utter shit (and your phone is probably on silent anyway).
You need a weather radio. Full stop. Here’s why…
Let’s look at the timing of the warnings.
The first Tornado Warning (and consequently the first true indication that this storm had dangerous capabilities) was issued by the National Weather Service in Memphis for Benton Co. at 11:02pm CST. The Memphis office warned of hail and radar-indicated rotation.
That cell would move East, setting off additional Tornado Warnings in neighboring Humphreys and Dickson counties. The storm — now in the jurisdiction of the National Weather Service in Nashville — was still tornado-warned at midnight CST.
By this time, 53 minutes had passed since Benton County Emergency Management had issued guidance that a possible tornado caused significant structural damage.
At 12:10am, the storm over Dickson Co. was still tornado-warned with the following warning text:
...A TORNADO WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 1215 AM CST FOR CENTRAL DICKSON COUNTY... At 1159 PM CST, a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was located 8 miles north of Dickson, moving east at 45 mph. HAZARD...Tornado and ping pong ball size hail. SOURCE...Radar indicated rotation. IMPACT...Flying debris will be dangerous to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be damaged or destroyed. Damage to roofs, windows, and vehicles will occur. Tree damage is likely. This dangerous storm will be near... White Bluff around 1205 AM CST. Other locations impacted by this tornadic thunderstorm include Charlotte and Vanleer. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. Tornadoes are extremely difficult to see and confirm at night. Do not wait to see or hear the tornado. TAKE COVER NOW!
Burn that last sentence into your memory.
For the next twenty minutes, the cell was not tornado warned. The rotation signature significantly weakened. It was, however, severe thunderstorm warned, spitting out high winds, baseball sized hail, and cloud-to-ground lightning.
THIS ENTIRE TIME that this storm was NOT tornado-warned, the fine folks at every Nashville-based television station (ABC-WKRN, NBC-WSMV, CBS-WTVF, FOX-WZTV), the National Weather Service in Nashville, plus the devoted gentlemen that run the @NashSevereWx Twitter handle and website kept reminding folks that this storm was dangerous, had a tornadic past, and that anyone in its path needed to be alert.
Therefore, when the storm suddenly reorganized and a funnel reached the ground over the John C. Tune airport, there was no element of surprise.
For the next three hours, this storm would wreak havoc along the Cumberland River, producing a 50-mile EF-3 tornado in Davidson Co./Nashville, Wilson Co., and Smith Co., and an EF-4 tornado in Putnam Co.
Why the ample warning did not stop the deaths from happening
For a lot, the strength of the tornado was just too great, and the path of destruction reveals that even well-built homes weren’t enough to protect some. For others, I argue that the lack of ability to reliably receive these ample warnings contributed to their tragic deaths.
I do not envy the job of the meteorologists and others whose job or mission it is to get these types of warnings out to people. Inevitably, it will either fall on deaf ears, or won’t reach the ears that matter the most. This realization induces extreme levels of psychological distress that many in the field are coping with this week.
James Spann, in reference to the 2011 Super Outbreak, repeatedly states to this day that he didn’t do enough to prevent the 300+ lives lost in Alabama in that bleak month of April.
Everyone who knows and loves James Spann disagrees. But it still haunts him.
TV meteorologist can stand in front of a green screen and scream until they’re blue in the face; Verizon and AT&T can blow up your phone with emergency notifications until the speakers shatter; volunteers like David and Andrew with @NashSevereWx can beg and plead for you to take shelter while worrying about their own families’ safety.
None of that matters if you are asleep and don’t hear it.
Technology has become an extension of ourselves. Save the arguments for whether this is a good or bad thing; it’s reality. We must live with it for now. But therein lies an inherit problem of what we are accustomed to believing about life:
“If it doesn’t buzz, it’s not important.”
“If it doesn’t ring, I won’t answer it.”
“If it doesn’t wake me up, it’s not a big deal.”
“If I can’t hear the siren, I’m not in danger.”
These are — without hyperbole — the most dangerous mindsets an individual can adopt while living in a tornado-prone region.
Outdoor sirens are only meant to be heard outdoors, and even then their reach is abysmal, or completely non-existent in rural areas. The “siren mentality” and reliance on them is a deadly problem, one that Spann has repeated railed against. Nothing I’m stating here is new or ground-shaking, but I’m among those who advocate for the complete abolishment of this useless network of noise makers with prejudice.
Cell phones are only as good as the network they’re connected to. But guess what? Tornadoes can knock out the cell towers and your home internet provider long before it reaches your house. Those startling government alerts that AT&T and Verizon push to your phone will never arrive if your nearby connection hubs have been wiped off the planet. Even if your cellphone stays connected and receives the alert.. Oops! You left your phone on silent.
You need two reliable sources of warning, and one must be a NOAA Weather Radio.
If you don’t already have a NOAA weather radio in your house, you need to get one. Now. Like a smoke or carbon-monoxide detector, they are designed to wake you up in the event that life-threatening weather is about to strike while you may be sleeping. I imagine that most of you would be (and should be) uncomfortable sleeping in a home with no smoke detectors; you should have the same mentality about weather radios.
Weather radios must be treated with the same level of respect and urgency that a smoke detector receives. This is especially true in a state where — as my coworker states — the atmosphere is repeatedly trying to kill you.
Tornados that happen between midnight and sunrise are 250% more likely to cause fatalities. The exact reason for this is disputed, but I stand with the work of meteorologists and social scientists that argue that this difference is almost entirely due to a lack of reliable warning sources at night. Smart phones can be silenced, have multi-minute delays, or can fail all together. Outdoor sirens are useless beyond half a mile and are rarely loud enough to wake you. The only reliable way in 2020 to wake you up to get to a safe place is with a weather radio. They’re loud, durable, and have stood the test of time for decades.
Modern weather radios can be programmed to only sound the alert if your county is under a Tornado Warning to help eliminate false alarms and unnecessary wake ups. They’re cheap (roughly $30) and easy to setup. They run on AC power with AA/AAA battery backup. Midland makes great radios. The instructions will include how to turn off/on certain alert products, and how to enter your Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) code. A list of SAME codes can be found on NOAA’s website.
I’m receiving no compensation for this endorsement or link to Amazon. I personally use this and rely on it to wake me at night.
Would weather radios have saved everyone?
Sadly, no. Once you reach EF-4 wind speeds and pressures, a well-built home with no basement likely won’t be enough. A lot of the homes in Cookeville were swept clean off their foundations.
But maybe they would have helped save a few lives. Some might have stood a better chance of survival if they were in an interior closet wearing a helmet rather than being asleep in their bed. But I digress. What-if games are never pleasant in tragic situations like this, and that’s not my intent here.
One day, though, a weather radio might save your life or the lives of your family. You don’t want the sound of your house falling apart to be the thing that wakes you up. I implore you to purchase one as soon as possible, and to convince your friends and loved ones to do the same.
To donate your time to the Nashville Tornado relief efforts, visit Hands on Nashville.
Monetary donations can be made to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
If you have anything left, there are countless of organizations giving their time and resources throughout the affected areas. Cookeville hospitals are dangerously low on blood; please donate blood if you can. I would also recommend a small donation to the folks that run @NashSevereWx out of love of keeping us informed, who despite being sick and in danger themselves, stayed up all night to keep an eye on things for all of us in the metro Nashville area.
Header photo courtesy of Jenny Pearcy, submitted to WKRN/Twitter.