The Nashville Tornadoes of March 2-3, 2020

Although life as we all know it has changed since this weather event only about a month ago, and even since just a few weeks ago when I wrote this post, we are still committed to reviewing past weather events, providing weather safety information, and generally discussing interesting meteorology topics via this blog. While we realize that life is not normal for so many of us, we hope that by continuing to blog on these important topics gives you, our readers, a sense of consistency and normalcy when everything in the world is changing by the minute.

I would also be remiss not to mention that, between the time which this blog was written a few weeks ago and the time it was pushed live to our website, yet another tragic round of severe weather impacted parts of the Southeast and Midwest on March 28. Numerous thunderstorms caused widespread wind damage and at least 30 reported tornadoes from Iowa and Illinois south to Kentucky and Arkansas. One of the largest was an EF-3 tornado which hit the city of Jonesboro, Arkansas. At least 83 homes were destroyed, and although there were 22 injuries, thankfully no fatalities were reported. The weather keeps marching on, further compounding and complicating the difficult situation of quarantine and social distancing which is already in effect due to the ongoing pandemic.

That being said, this blog post will focus on the deadly tornadoes which impacted the Nashville area on March 2 and 3, 2020.

On the evening of March 2 into March 3, deadly tornadoes marched through central Tennessee and made a direct hit on the city of Nashville. The storms were particularly deadly because some of the strongest impacts occurred after dark and during the overnight hours when most people were sleeping. At least 24 people lost their lives as a result of these storms, including at least five children under age 13. Countless others suffered injuries, and tens of thousands were left without power and suffered damage to their homes. While the most common time of day for tornadoes to occur is late afternoon or early evening, they can occur at any time of day. Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients that came together to create such a high-impact event.

Putnam County, TN tornado damage. Courtesy: National Weather Service.

In their outlook issued during the evening of March 1 into March 2, the NOAA/Storm Prediction Center issued a slight risk of severe thunderstorms for western Tennessee in their Day 1 outlook. The forecast did highlight a risk for tornadoes to develop. A full discussion of the SPC severe weather outlook categories can be found here. A slight risk means that severe weather is expected, and isolated intense storms are possible although generally speaking the forecast does not call for widespread severe weather.

SPC Day 1 outlook for March 2, 2020.

A potent upper level disturbance was moving across the southeast United States, while at low levels warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico was present in the area outlined in the SPC slight risk. With an unstable air mass in place, the necessary meteorological ingredients were in place by late afternoon on March 2. Storms had broken out across eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee, and at 5:20 PM the SPC issued the first tornado watch of the day for an area spanning from northern Arkansas to southeast Missouri, and including extreme northwest Tennessee. As the storms moved eastward, a small tornado watch was issued at 11:20 PM which encompassed the Nashville area and points west. By this time, a supercell storm which was capable of producing tornadoes had been identified in northwestern Tennessee and was expected to maintain its organization for up to several hours. Recall that by 11:20 PM, many people had already gone to bed for the night.

SPC Tornado Watch issued 3/2/2020 at 11:20 PM.

By 12:50 AM on March 3, the storm had become very intense and was producing large hail and damaging winds west of Nashville.

*** EXPIRED *** Heads up Dickson! You are in the path of this storm capable of producing a tornado. Large hail and damaging straight line winds also possible.

Posted by US National Weather Service Nashville Tennessee on Monday, March 2, 2020

By 1:30 am, the storm was just west of the Nashville metropolitan area and producing baseball size hail.

*** EXPIRED *** Heads up Metro Nashville. The storm moving into northern Davidson has a history of producing hail up to…

Posted by US National Weather Service Nashville Tennessee on Monday, March 2, 2020

A tornado was confirmed on the ground northwest of downtown Nashville shortly after the time of the above post, and remained on the ground as the storm marched eastward through about 2:30 AM.

Courtesy: National Weather Service.

Residents in the path of storm were awakened to a terrifying situation and rushed to take cover. As morning dawned, central Tennessee awoke to the news that some neighbors and friends had lost everything, including their lives for some. This drone footage shows just how devastating the damage was in the hardest hit areas.

Preliminary storm reports from the SPC included a string of tornado reports spanning much of the width of the state from east to west.

Courtesy: SPC.

National Weather Service damage surveys were conducted in the coming days and confirmed that seven tornadoes touched down across central Tennessee on March 2 and March 3. One tornado which tracked through Putnam County was rated an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, with estimated peak winds of 175 miles per hour and a path length over 8 miles. All told, this was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Tennessee since the widespread April 27, 2011 outbreak which impacted many areas of the southeast United States. Other tornadoes also were confirmed in Missouri, Kentucky and central Alabama. The EF-4 tornado was responsible for 18 deaths and was the deadliest tornado in the state since 2008. Meanwhile, an EF-3 tornado which occurred in downtown Nashville was one of the longest-path tornadoes on state record.

Courtesy: National Weather Service.

The tornado which impacted downtown Nashville followed a similar path as past tornadoes which impacted the city in 1998 and 1933.

Courtesy: National Weather Service.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones in these kinds of situations? While nocturnal tornadoes are by nature more deadly simply because of the time of the day they occur, it isn’t impossible to stay safe even in situations which unfold overnight. First of all, be sure to stay ‘weather-aware’- pay attention to the weather forecast, and if severe weather is in the forecast be sure to pay close attention to the expected impact time. If nocturnal severe weather is in the forecast, be sure to review with your family your hazardous weather plan and where the best shelter rooms are located in your home. Ensure that a plan is in place to account for small children and others who may need extra time or special care to take shelter during an emergency. This way, no one is fumbling in the dark when there is not time to react.

Perhaps the best thing you can do to protect your family is to ensure you have a working, battery-operated (in case the power goes out) NOAA Weather Radio to receive warnings. These will sound (very) loud alarms if a severe weather warning is in place in your location, which will allow everyone to wake up and take quick action as needed. If you do not have a NOAA Weather Radio but do have a phone, you can enable severe weather alerts in your phone settings (check your individual phone documentation for how to do this). Make sure that if severe weather is expected, this feature is enabled and your volume is turned up so you hear the alerts as they come through.

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