by Kathy B. Lauder.
One hundred years after the first tornado was catalogued in Middle Tennessee,1 Nashville found itself facing the deadliest storm in its recorded history up to that time. Although many residents believed that the hills to the south and west would protect the city from approaching storms,2 weather conditions on March 14, 1933, were creating a recipe for disaster. At 3:00 the temperature had reached 80 degrees – a record high for the date3; meanwhile, a strong cold front was speeding toward Nashville from the northwest, carrying a line of powerful thunderstorms. The front edge of the system hit after sunset, dropping 0.81 inches of rain and large hailstones.4
The tornado followed the storm over the western hills, touching down at Charlotte Pike and 51st Avenue just before 7:30, shattering windows as it passed over the State Capitol, and picking up strength as it approached the Public Square. There it damaged several buildings as it passed within 400 feet of the Weather Office.5 After it crossed the Cumberland River into East Nashville, its path widened to 800 yards. By now an F3* tornado, it tore through the dark into heavily populated neighborhoods, destroying homes, schools, churches, and businesses.6
The storm hurtled on into Donelson and Hermitage, demolishing several more homes and a filling station, uprooting huge trees, splintering utility poles, and injuring several residents.7 From there it continued into Wilson County, creating additional casualties and severely damaging 228 buildings, most of them in Lebanon.8
The tornado, which traveled for 45 miles through three counties, caused 11 deaths in Davidson County, 4 more in Wilson County, and at least 45 injuries requiring medical treatment, before it lifted and dispersed over Smith County.9 During the next few days Nashville’s City Building Office estimated that 1,500 buildings had been damaged by the storm, 800 so seriously as to be uninhabitable.10 Total recorded property damage included 1,400 homes, sixteen churches, thirty-six stores, five factories, four schools, a library, and a lodge hall.11
Nashvillians had no warning. At that time the Weather Bureau prohibited forecasts of approaching tornadoes, believing they would cause widespread panic.12 As a result, many of those killed or injured did not have time to seek shelter.
* According to the Fujita scale of tornado intensity, an F3 tornado (158-206 mph) can cause severe damage: “roofs and some walls torn off well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown.” (2015)
1 Rose, Mark. “A Tornado Climatology of Middle Tennessee (1830-2003).” Nashville: National Weather Service Forecast Office. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ohx/?n=tornadoclimatology (Accessed 1-10-2015)
2 Beard, William E. “Tennessee Calendar.” The Banner, March 14, 1940.
3 Rose, Mark. “The Nashville Tornado of March 14, 1933,” Nashville: National Weather Service Forecast Office. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ohx/?n=nashvilletornado (Accessed 1-10-2015)
4 Rose. “The Nashville Tornado.”
5 Rose. “The Nashville Tornado,” Appendix.
7 Rose. “The Nashville Tornado.”
8 Rose. “The Nashville Tornado.”
9 Rose. “Tornado Climatology.”
10 “Relief Work Quickened in Storm Area.” The Banner, March 16, 1933.
12 Williamson, R. M. “Tornadoes So Rare There Is No Need for Constant Fear, Weatherman Says.” The Banner, March 11, 1934.