April 16th, 1998 Tornadoes – From Nashville to Lawrence County…

There are three certainties when it comes to life in Dixie: death, taxes, and tornadoes. In more ways than one, it’d even be right to suggest that tornadoes – indeed, weather as a whole – has shaped the history of this part of the continent. You can look as far back as the early days of the Civil War to see that first hand. One such example is that of April 2nd 1862. The history buffs among you may recognize the date as being towards the end of the Battle of Island Ten, a confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River out by Lake County, Tennessee. The battle was fierce, with dozens dead on both side from weeks of fighting, and both sides took casualties early on the morning of April 2nd – not by gunfire or artillery, but according to NWS Nashville, from a family of tornadoes riding the river northeast, killing 2 confederate troops on Island No. 10 itself and severely damaging garrisons along the shorefront. It was, in part, this so-called “act of god” that led to the eventual overwhelming of Island No. 10 by Union Forces later that day, which culminated in surrender of some 7,000 troops just a few days later – a decisive win by the Union forces.

It’s no surprise, then, that over the next century severe weather was a permanent presence in the back of the minds of residents of so called Dixie Alley, a roughly defined geographic region that’s generally considered to stretch from Louisiana to Georgia, with it’s heart consisting of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi – again, perhaps not a surprise to some of you long-time residents, whose parents may have lived through March 21, 1932, or who yourselves may have experienced the tornado outbreaks throughout the 1970s, or, relevant to todays discussion – the chaos that was the mid-to-late 90s.

I’d be willing to bet a lot of you remember the tornado outbreak on May 18th, 1995, which, in a way, reacquainted the Tennessee Valley with violent tornadoes. In southern TN, an F4 tornado tore a 28 mile path through Wayne and Lawrence Counties, killing 3 and hurting dozens more. A local color doppler radar in Lawrenceburg captured an early example of a hook and debris ball. Just to it’s south and just 45 minutes later, another F4 touches down in Limestone County, Alabama and takes 1 life in Anderson Hills, north of Huntsville. In many ways this was a wakeup call to the fact that, despite no violent tornadoes occurring locally in the preceding half century or more, we’re still at the heart of Dixie alley, and mother nature doesn’t know state lines. It was just a few seasons later, in 1998, that the uptick in severe weather throughout the mid to late 90s reached a fever pitch.

1998, and even more specifically April of that year, kicked off viciously – April 8th of that year was host to a notorious and very deadly F5 in the Birmingham metropolitan that ended the lives of 32 people. Cars were mangled beyond recognition, and debris from certain neighborhoods close to the area at which the tornado peaked in strength was granulated into wood chips – trees were stripped of their bark. This event was a sign of the times, in some ways – an active pattern was here to stay, and models were pointing at the next week for more active weather.

It was 8 days later that the next system had arrived. By April 15th, strong to violent tornadoes had already occurred in the Mississippi Delta with the parent system in question – by the morning of the 16th, plentiful shear extended from Louisiana to Indiana, with what’s known as a subtropical jet also present, which helped change the geometry of the trough, providing extra divergence, which provides vertical lift, over the Tennessee Valley. Combine this with the fact that 60 degree dewpoints overspread a wide warm sector of moist, humid air, and all signs pointed to a continuation of the outbreak sequence by the afternoon of the 16th.

Early in the morning, an F3 tornado associated with remnants of the storms the day prior touched down near Dickson, TN – an area that was far from done with severe weather for the day. Following it’s dissipation, the day largely stagnated, besides some errant strong thunderstorm clusters through midday. It was around the 1 o’clock hour that afternoon that the first indications of proper supercell development were underway across Central and Western Portions of Tennessee.

First to mature were the mostly discrete supercells south of the Nashville metro – in the subsequent 30-45 minutes following their initiation, large hail and extremely frequent lightning reports came in at a steady pace with these storms, but amazingly, aside from low hanging wall clouds associated with rotation under these storms, no particular notable tornado activity was reported up through the 2pm hour with these cells – the environment was clearly continuing to mature.

The furthest north storms continued to mature and produce similar hazards, but one in particular got far enough ahead of it’s cellular siblings to start to take full advantage of the atmosphere. Through the latter half of the 2 o’clock hour and up to around 3, this supercell approaching downtown Nashville appeared to latch onto a boundary – something that can and did locally enhance the tornado potential.

By 3:30, the hook tightened and doppler velocities were gate to gate, with a possible debris ball evident almost immediately – the Nashville F3 had begun.

Tower cameras in downtown captured the bowl-like mesocyclone and multivortex tornado beginning as it impacted downtown and moved ENE – amazingly, despite its proximity to such dense population centers, the tornado “only” claimed 1 life – an ROTC student who, that afternoon, was unfortunately caught beneath a fallen tree and died from his injuries. Moreover, some 35 buildings in and around downtown itself were assessed after the tornado and deemed structurally unsound for occupation – adjusted for inflation, $190 million dollars in damage was done. This wouldn’t be the only tornado Nashville would see that day, but it was certainly the strongest.

Not long after this first Nashville supercell moved out of town, a very similarly intense supercell was manifesting in Hardin and Wayne counties in TN, and just before 4pm, the first tornado of the trio that was the “Forgotten F5” tornado family touched down.

Pictured here is a photo early in the first tornadoes life – a relatively scraggly, multiple-vortex tornado moving through Wayne County. This tornado was one example that size doesn’t equal strength – already, 2 lives were lost to this tornado – on it’s own already more intense than the Nashville tornado that occurred in the last hour.

A short time later, the initially apparently anemic-looking tornado expanded into a nearly half-mile wide monster as it moved north of the Highland community – large swaths of forest were almost completely toppled, and mobile homes and vehicles were left unrecognizable along it’s 30 mile path. This tornado would be the deadliest of the outbreak – taking 3 lives by the time it had lifted in Eastern Wayne County, and began the process of cycling.

It wouldn’t be long after this cycling that the strongest tornado of this tornado family, this outbreak, an indeed in Tennessee history touched down. To the north, another “training” supercell was producing tornadic activity in the Nashville metro, keeping NWS Nashville busy with warning operations. A tornado warning persisted with the tornadic cell that produced an F4 through Wayne County – around 30 minutes after this first tornado touched down, it would briefly cycle, or in other words lift and reconsolidate, and near the Wayne/Lawrence County line, the F5 was born.

In West Lawrence County, another scraggly multi-vortex is spotted, which very quickly bloats into a wedge tornado – a tornado wider than it is tall. Just 7 minutes after it touched down, Doug Alley and family are sitting on their property – still newly built following the destruction of a tornado in the same portion of the county 3 years prior – recording a mile-wide tornado moving between Deerfield and Center, in West Lawrence County. Around this time, homes – fortunately unoccupied a the time – are being wiped from their foundations; thousands of trees are being toppled, with an unconfirmed report of one tree being thrown thousands of yards and eventually found downwind, embedded some way into the ground.

In Central Lawrence County, concerningly close to Lawrenceburg, the tornado was continuing near peak strength – trees were stripped of their bark, and several more well-built homes were swept cleanly from their foundation. In terms of the original Fujita scale, the tornado rating mechanism in place at the time, this damage was only possible at wind speeds in excess of 260mph – firmly in the F5 range. This tornado was mostly confined to Lawrence County, and lifted near Alexander Springs. It would cycle once more into another F4 strength tornado that would impact rural portions of Giles and Maury Counties, though less is known about this cycle which fortunately took no lives and did comparatively less – but still significant – damage.

The tornado family at this point was now over. After 2 F4s and an F5, this Southern Tennessee series of tornadoes was cemented as a bit of local mythology – one of many regarding weather. Miraculously, the so-called “Forgotten F5” did not take any lives, but did injure 21 people and do nearly $13 million in damage.

If you can re-frame how you see the big picture of “tornado outbreaks”, you may be surprised at the good that came out the other side. For example, Lawrence County officials overwhelmingly supported the construction of a new American Red Cross headquarters in Lawrenceburg to ensure that when the next event occurred, help would only be minutes away – in Lawrenceburg proper, a young Ben Luna’s passion was being solidified, manifesting in years of service in radio, television, and ultimately culminating in the creation of Tennessee Valley Weather alongside the team at Shoals Weather – and here we are today, applying lessons from the past and watching vigilantly for the signs of whatever comes next.

1 thought on “April 16th, 1998 Tornadoes – From Nashville to Lawrence County…”

  1. I was running the Lawrence County Skywarn network that day. We were tracking the cells in northeast MS and west TN, and knew there had been a touchdown at Lutts in Wayne County. Thinking that the storm would track north of us into Lewis County, I had moved spotters to positions along the Turnpike (TN Rte 240) and along Napier Road near the Lewis County line. One of our spotters reported debris falling from the sky, and a few minutes later reported he was taking cover in a ditch! Talk about an “Oh Shucks” moment! Our spotters kept eyeballs on the tornado as it crossed Lawrence County, then I put on my PIO hat and began handling media operations for EMA and other county agencies. It was an afternoon to remember.

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