Above: A resident makes her way down Underwood Street in Nashville, Tennessee, amidst downed trees and heavy debris in the early morning hours of March 3, 2020. A tornado passed through Nashville just after midnight. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
A long-track tornadic supercell ripped across central parts of Tennessee in the overnight hours early Tuesday. Major damage occurred in the Nashville area, where a tornado tracked just north of downtown between 12:30 and 1:00 am. Parts of Putnam County, just to the east, were also hit hard.
Update: At least 24 fatalities and more than 200 injuries had been reported by early Wednesday, according to weather.com. The toll includes 18 people in Putnam County, 3 in Wilson County, 2 in Davidson County (which includes Nashville) and 1 in Benton County. (The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday afternoon that 25 people had been killed statewide, but that number was later revised to 24 after one of the fatalities was determined to be not storm-related.)
City authorities in Nashville reported about 40 collapsed buildings.
The area around Cookeville, the county seat of Putnam County, saw severe damage. The Tennessean reported that hundreds of rescuers had fanned out across a two-mile swath just west of Cookeville that left homes and businesses unrecognizable.
Search and rescue operations were still under way on Tuesday afternoon.
Nashville’s John C. Tune Airport, about four miles west-northwest of downtown, was severely damaged. The airport is the state’s largest for general aviation (private pilots).
“According to aerial photos and video of the scene, at least four hangars were completely devastated, including one showing five jets amidst the ruins, along with several smaller aircraft,” reported AIN Online. “More single-engine aircraft were shown strewn across the tarmac."
See weather.com for full coverage of these tornadoes and their aftermath, including a powerful compilation of before-and-after photos from the Nashville area.
How it happened
Middle Tennessee had been flagged for a slight risk of severe weather on Monday by the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center. However, it wasn’t immediately apparent that a long-track tornadic supercell would develop overnight. Instead, the pattern seemed more like a “garden-variety” setup, with the chance of a stray tornado or two.
Severe storms broke out in southeast Missouri on Monday night, extending into Kentucky, prompting issuance of a tornado watch across that area.
By late Monday night, a nose of more-unstable air was aiming for central Tennessee, where it would be positioned beneath strong upper-level winds.
SPC issued a tornado watch at 11:20 pm CST Monday for central Tennessee, running till 3 am.
The long-tracked supercell that spawned the deadly tornadoes developed well west of Nashville and raced eastward, close to a boundary separating rain-cooled air from the nose of warmer, more-unstable air. With no strong storms to its south, the supercell had unimpeded access to the unstable air pushing in from the gulf.
A tornado warning went out at 12:35 am for the Nashville area.
NWS forecaster Sam Shamburger videotaped the tornado looking northwest from near downtown, and other videos caught the twister as well.
The overnight tornadoes checked off several climatological boxes. When the U.S. gets tornadoes in March, they are most likely to occur across the South, albeit usually south of Middle Tennessee. Moreover, according to one analysis, a larger fraction of tornadoes occur at night in Tennessee (46%) than in any other state.
Last night’s tornadic supercell appears to have developed in a classic environment for late-winter and early-spring tornadoes across the South, with moderate instability but very strong vertical wind shear. Studies have shown that even modest amounts of instability can be enough to produce intense supercells and tornadoes if the shear is adequately strong.
Another March 3 tornado disaster
It’s worth comparing and contrasting this event to the deadly tornado that occurred one year ago today—March 3, 2019—in Lee County, Alabama. See the overview of this event posted here in Cat 6 last week by guest author Lee Grenci. In both the 2019 and 2020 events, a somewhat unremarkable severe set-up ramped up quickly, as a compact low intensified along a preexisting frontal zone, a pocket of unstable air moved toward it, and a long-lived tornadic supercell formed.
Two key differences: the Lee County tornado developed on a Sunday afternoon as opposed to the middle of a Monday night, and it struck well outside of a major metropolitan area.
As noted by weather.com’s Chris Dolce, these are the deadliest tornadoes in Tennessee since at least the Super Outbreak of April 27, 2011, when 31 Tennesseeans were killed. Dolce looks at several striking coincidences, including the point just northeast of downtown in the Five Points area where the Tuesday tornado passed near the paths of two prior F3 tornadoes from 1933 and 1993.
Another odd happenstance: Tennessee also dealt with a deadly tornado outbreak on Super Tuesday 2008. That disaster, which occurred on the evening rather than the early morning of Super Tuesday, took 31 lives in Tennessee, plus dozens more elsewhere.