Learning from Experience-The April 16, 1998 Tornado in Nashville

I was sitting in a meeting in the corporate office of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, located at 900 Church Street, on the afternoon of April 16, 1998.  The meeting was not memorable, but the knock on the door instructing us to head across the street immediately because of an impending tornado was.  About half of our group headed across the street and a few chose to stay in the one story building at 900 Church.  

When we crossed the street, we proceeded to the lowest level of the Downtown YMCA, which is now the corporate office as well in the upper levels.  I remember well looking outside the windows seeing the debris being whisked around by strong winds and then things slowed down and we headed back upstairs.

When we stepped outside and looked to the east, the site was frightening.  Many windows were gone from the TPAC building as well as from the Hyatt (now the Sheraton) by the State Capitol.  Seeing curtains blowing in the breeze at floors 10 and above was a little sobering.  The thing that made the day even more scary was the continued reports of more storms and impending warnings.  For several hours we were afraid to leave downtown to head home, even if we could have.  Bear in mind, there were no cell phones in 1998, so our ability to communicate with our families was scarce at best because of other outages.


Eventually I left and headed home to Franklin, but I learned a few valuable lessons on this day, many that came in handy just 10 years later when my wife and I were in the Georgia Dome when the tornado came through Downtown Atlanta.

  1. When I hear a severe weather warning, I take it seriously.  I remember talking to my colleagues who stayed in the corporate office at 900 Church and they felt very luck to have come through that event unscathed.
  2. It is important to keep your wits about you, even if those around you are losing theirs.  Calm is valuable asset in a hectic time and having the ability to think critically and calmly during a crisis is important.
  3. Be sure things are clear before you proceed to leave your safe place.  The weather on April 16, 1998 was pretty unstable and we were marooned in Downtown Nashville for hours waiting out the storms.  The events in the Georgia Dome punctuated that because there was indecision on the part of those running the show as they waffled between letting us stay or getting us out of the arena.

I think back now on these experiences and feel extremely grateful to have survived both.  Surviving a weather event such as a tornado is no laughing matter, and I had first hand experience in two of the most well known in a 10 year span, both in the middle of cities.

Handling crises is a key attribute for any of us, especially if you are in leadership.  How you handle yourself and care for others says a lot about who you are and what you value.