Local business owner recalls'98 tornado

Jennifer Horton

It was 10 years ago this week, April 16, 1998, to be exact, that some of us were literally seeking shelter from the storm as three tornadoes threatened life and property from Nashville to Mt. Juliet and Lebanon.

Fortunately in Wilson County, there was no loss of life and no injuries, but there was extensive property damage in some locations along the paths of the tornadoes.

One local business, Pro-Tech Tool & Machine, 103 Rocky Road, Lebanon, was one of several locally to sustain damage but came back stronger and expanded to a new location.

Pro-Tech was located at 104 Bay Court in 1998. “I saw it come around the corner and ran and hid in the bathroom,” said Lynn Farmer, co-owner with his twin brother, Glenn, of the company. Glenn was not at the building when the tornado struck.

The time clock at the business stopped at 5:07 p.m. that day. Lynn was there along with four other employees. Two employees left for the day before the storm hit.

Of course, most everyone was keeping up with the weather as there were constant reports on TV, radio and NOAA Weather Radio. The storm system had moved from West Tennessee toward the east beginning around midnight.

Lynn said he and the workers were outside next to the building looking at weather conditions when he noticed a swirl of debris. He and everyone then moved to where a garage door was and continued to watch the sky. He noted that the tornado came from behind Southeast Impressions where it tore off the corner of the building. The five of them then sought cover in the bathroom.

If he had not seen the debris in the air, he said, “we’d have been hit.”

As the storm raged, Lynn said he and the others “could hear the building coming apart” and heard glass being broken. He added, however, that he never heard the sound of a roaring train that many tornado victims describe.

The tornado was only on the ground for a few short minutes, but to Lynn and the workers, he said it seemed like hours. He added that it appeared to jump from place to place, as they sometimes do, striking other businesses including Advance Auto Parts, Oak (NAPA) Auto Parts and the TRW plant on the corner of Baddour Parkway and Hartmann Drive.

When it moved on and the winds died down, Lynn said they emerged from the bathroom to survey the damage.

But first, he called his brother Glenn, who he said, could not believe what had happened.

Damage was so bad to the building that it was condemned and torn down. There was no loss of equipment, but nine pieces of it had to be placed in storage for a time. Pro-Tech was able to move operations into a building next door to its original location. It took three weeks, Lynn said, to get “back up and running in that little building and five years to recover.”

It took five years because he and Glenn had to purchase the lot the new location was on to be able to re-open.

Since that time, however, the company has continued to grow and now has 17 employees. The Farmers bought a larger building at 103 Rocky Road in 2006.

Lynn said he remembered everyone had been sitting around a table at lunch that day noting how they would like to see a tornado some time, off in the distance where no one was at risk of getting hurt.

“We got to see one first-hand. We don’t talk like that anymore,” he laughed and said.

The three tornadoes that moved through this area were part of 10 confirmed such storms in Tennessee on April 16, 1998, said Bobby Boyd, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Old Hickory.

While no one was killed or injured in Wilson County, one person, a Vanderbilt University student, died as a result of injuries he received when a tree fell on him during a picnic at Nashville’s Centennial Park. There were 60 injuries also reported in Nashville.

“All the ingredients were there. We certainly had a major outbreak that day,” Boyd said.

 “We had know for a couple of days (prior to April 16, 1998) that we would be under the gun,” he said, noting there was a strong surface low and a cold front meeting up with a dry layer of air at 10,000 feet.

Some 200 severe weather warnings were issued then with 106 of those being tornado warnings. There were more than 20 supercell thunderstorms that produced the 10 confirmed tornadoes.

In looking back, Boyd said he thought the weather service “did a very good job and the public did a good job.” The NWS issued warnings that gave people time to take cover and people responded. “That’s what saves lives.”

He added that today people are better prepared. There have been several severe weather events in the 10 years since, including more tornadoes. “People now, because we’ve had several events, people take them more serious than ever. That’s a good thing.”

Although the tornadoes 10 years ago struck this area during the daytime, we often have bad weather at night. Boyd said everyone should purchase a radio that allows you to receive NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts. Certain radios will allow you to program Wilson County and other counties, if you wish, so you can keep up with changing conditions.

He also said whether you are at home or at work, it is a good idea to pick out a place to go for safety when bad weather threatens such as the lowest floor in a building, if possible.

The technology used by the weather service has continued to improve during the past 10 years and will do so in the future. “We’re always being trained on new technology, new tools, new software. We’re always trying to do a better job. It’ll get even better in the future,” Boyd added.

As for whether Middle Tennessee is part of a new “tornado alley,” like that of the Plains states, Boyd noted, “it’s our turn in the barrel.”

Weather goes in cycles and we have been in a cycle where there has been an increase in tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts and more. “At some point we’ll see a decrease.”