Former Mayor Bill Purcell On The 15th Anniversary Of The ’98 Tornado

What Makes Us Stronger: A Reflection

From Philadelphia, my father called my office at Vanderbilt to tell me CNN had reported a tornado alert for Nashville. My staff told him I was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. In the meeting, we watched the trees outside bend in ways we had never seen. As we stood increasingly closer to the window, we saw a limb fly off and land on a colleague’s car. Someone remarked how unusual this was. On the other side of West End a student was killed when the tree under which he sought cover fell over. Minutes later, the tornado struck our neighborhood. We did not know about the loss of life or what lay ahead for East Nashville; we just stood at the window and wondered.

At the same time, my wife and daughter were driving away from our home on Holly Street for ballet class. They noticed the wind, but took no notice of the tornado. As the full extent of the storm became known, they started back home, but only made it as far as the H.G. Hill on Gallatin Road. The roads were blocked, night was falling, and it became apparent that the lights were all out. They decided to walk the mile to our home. That was the last cell phone contact I had as the communication system collapsed.

For the next hour I had no information about my family, my neighbors or my neighborhood. For all of us, it was a dark and increasingly frightening night. By the time I made it home I knew at least that my loved ones were safe but in the dark, and we still had no clear sense of what had happened. As the neighborhood gathered in the street we were cheered by our own presence — and scared nearly senseless by the unknown.

In the days that followed, we learned not only the full extent of the damage and loss, but how lucky and blessed we were. We also came to appreciate our neighbors and neighborhood in new and very personal ways. Everyone pitched in, chain saws appeared, as did people from all over Tennessee who just wanted to help — and they did.

We discovered all over again what our neighborhood meant to us. And the city understood, many for the first time, how special the people and the place were. Every report reinforced the basic importance of community. The assault on the built environment was the lead in every story. But always close behind was the way the people of the neighborhood came together to support one another, to celebrate survival of what was most dear, and to cry about what was lost.

In the days ahead, much of the rest of Nashville went back to business and life as usual. There were moments during the year that followed when the pain returned, the things lost again front of mind, and our memories no longer shared in the balance of the city where nothing had much changed. But in the years that have followed it has been apparent that the rest of our city had, through those days, understood why East Nashville had survived and prevailed through any and all natural and human disasters during the 20th century. Two tornadoes, a massive fire, urban neglect, school decline and the rise of crime had not overcome the intrinsic value of the place and the people who had lived there all along and the people who had joined them.

The neighborhood movement that had started and flourished here was a result of no assault or threat and did not arise from disaster. It came from a shared desire nearly a generation before to protect what was and is so good and so special about the place and the people East Nashville nurtured through two centuries. Historic zoning and conservation zoning, neighborhood crime suppression and more constant attention to codes had affirmed the belief that neighborhoods could protect themselves and improve quality of life.

The assault of the tornado focused Nashville’s attention for a time on us all. The memory it created was of a place more special, more vital and more attractive than most of the city remembered or perhaps ever knew. That memory has been indelible and continues to this day.

East Nashville was neither destroyed nor saved by the tornado. We were, in some ways, reaffirmed in our commitment to what we were doing and would need to keep doing to make our neighborhoods what we had dreamed they could be: safe on every corner, served by good schools, graced by inspiring churches and rich with green spaces, connected by sidewalks, greenways and bike lanes. And protected by a city that now understood that we knew what we had and we would always protect it and everyone here. No natural disaster had ever changed that., and no tornado could either. East Nashville was and is too old and too young and too committed to what we are and dream to be. An enduring and very personal commitment of which a day in April 1998 is simply a reminder.

The next year there was a mayoral election. We soon installed tornado sirens in public spaces across the city. An office of neighborhoods was created, and a new commitment was made to parks and sidewalks and schools and housing and infrastructure and the built environment. The sirens were a direct result of the tornado. The rest came about because the neighborhoods of East Nashville had long before understood — and then shared — what was most important to the success of the city and the lives of the people for whom it was created.

—Bill Purcell

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