Perspective from the past: 1998 Twister tantrum

Jake Old • Apr 17, 2017 at 7:51 PM

Four tornadoes touched down in Wilson County on April 16, 1998, causing massive damage to people and property.

According to data from the National Weather Service, at least 60 people were injured and one person was killed in a storm that tore through Davidson and Wilson counties. Twenty-four more people were injured in the three other storms that came through Wilson County.

In total, at least 13 tornadoes struck Middle Tennessee on that day, with almost 100 injuries and four deaths.

The four tornadoes in Wilson County included an F3 storm, an F2 storm and two F1 storms.

More than two-dozen buildings were destroyed in the storms, including downtown businesses and a farm at the northern edge of the county. One tornado touched down close to W.A. Wright Elementary School in Mt. Juliet.

Areas stuck the hardest included the western portion of the county, downtown Lebanon and the northeastern part of the county. Other outlying areas of the county reported damage of varying degrees.

According to reporting from the Lebanon Democrat on the following day, the storms came from the west, moving their way across the county and leaving disaster in their wake.

At about 5 p.m., warning sirens were blaring in the downtown area of Lebanon. Other storms had already hit that afternoon.

A tornado touched down on Bay Court in Lebanon and moved across West Main Street, eventually moving back to the sky and going over Hartmann Drive.

David Hale, who was the director of the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency at the time, witnessed that storm firsthand, as he stepped outside WEMA headquarters on Oak Street in Lebanon.

“We actually watched that storm as it crossed back there, and we could see debris all going up from that storm, and it was sort of an interesting twist — to be an eyewitness,” Hale said.

“As the director of emergency management, I probably had a few different things going through my head than the average citizen.”

Hale was thinking about damage assessment and getting crews out to help anyone in the storm’s path, but the sight of the storm still struck him.

“Just like an average citizen, I was in awe at the sheer force that is there, and the amount of damage that can occur from storms like that,” Hale said.

The newspaper showed a photograph of what once was Advanced Auto Parts, but after the tornado struck, it was a pile of rubble.

Debris filled the streets in the area. Emergency officials urged people to take caution, especially with downed power lines. All told, the damage would total in the millions.

Officials were quoted in the newspaper in 1998 as saying they were fortunate that, with heavy rains accompanying the storm, there was not additional damage due to flash flooding.

In one area, near Hurricane Creek Road, five young children were rescued from nearby flooding, which caused them to be temporarily trapped.

The storm that caused the most damage, the F3 that moved from Davidson County into Wilson County, caused many trees to be uprooted, power lines knocked down and roofs damaged as it moved into Mt. Juliet, according to a storm analysis by the National Weather Service.

The Mt. Juliet Little League field was reportedly littered with aluminum and lumber blown from Marvin’s Lumber Yard. A roof was partially blown off at First Bank in Mt. Juliet.

Hale said the afternoon filled with dangerous storms was reminiscent to a time in the 1970s, shortly after he started his career in emergency services, when there were hundreds of tornadoes that swept through the country, including some in Wilson County.

“When you have a day like that, with multiple tornadoes occurring like that, it allows you to learn how to be better prepared,” Hale said.

After the 1998 tornadoes, additional sirens were added, and WEMA’s weather radar capabilities greatly improved, Hale said.

“Today, WEMA is even more prepared,” Hale said. “With (current WEMA Director) Joey Cooper and his staff, they do a great job, and on the weather side of things — I wish I could have had some of the technology they have, being able to push out alerts on cell phones and email.”

According to a later storm analysis by the National Weather Service in 2013, there may have been more tornadoes that touched down in Middle Tennessee. Data in 1998 was found to have some errors, and those were addressed in 2013 with documentation, spotter reports and Google Earth imagery.

According to the National Weather Service’s 2013 analysis, tornadoes were confirmed to touch down in Cheatham, Davidson, Dickson, Giles, Hardin, Humphreys, Lawrence, Macon, Maury, Montgomery, Pickett, Robertson, Trousdale, Wayne and Wilson counties.

Hale said even almost 20 years later, he can still see the storm in his memory.

“It’s sort of remarkable to think it’s pushing 20 years,” Hale said. 

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