It looks like an ordinary webcam shot. But what’s about to happen seems unreal.
The camera, mounted at the corner of Jefferson Street and Third Avenue North in Nashville, reveals the terrifying moments a destructive EF3 tornado plowed through the heart of Music City in the early morning hours of March 3. Coming with barely five minutes’ warning, the deadly funnel claimed five lives and injured more than 200 people along its 60-mile path through Middle Tennessee.
Sparks fly, debris soars by, and water blasts the camera like the inside of a washing machine. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department posted the video to Twitter on Thursday evening.
Surprisingly, the camera continued recording even after the tornado’s fierce assault, assisted by battery backup. A second-by-second analysis offers insight into the tornado’s furious rampage.
The scene quickly changes in mere seconds from an unremarkable, tranquil rainy evening to something out of a horror movie. The camera is mounted to a utility pole in front of IMT Germantown, an apartment complex. The Redpepper advertising agency can be seen in the background.
A nearly calm breeze gently sways traffic signals strung overhead as a vehicle drives east down Jefferson Street, seemingly oblivious to the imminent destruction moments away. City lights reflect off the backdrop of damp roadways, the pavement having just been doused by a passing nighttime thundershower. It looks rather quaint, a sleepy evening with rain pattering off the window panes. The time is about 12:40 a.m. The camera is in the “vault” of the rotating supercell storm.
Due to the orientation and motion of the storm, rain from the storm actually hasn’t even fallen yet. The pavement is wet from earlier showers.
Things quickly change. The winds pick up, blowing toward the camera. That’s “inflow” from the southwest screaming north to fuel the intense mesocyclone containing the twister. It’s streaming in from the direction of First Horizon Park.
About 18 to 22 seconds into the video, obvious power flashes are visible to the top right (west), where the approaching tornado is ravaging the electrical grid. Redpepper’s lights go out immediately after the power flash as electricity is apparently severed. The streetlights remain on.
The camera begins to jostle back and forth about 28 to 30 seconds into the video. At 30 seconds, the outer edge of the tornadic circulation arrives. Then all hell breaks loose.
Winds at first begin southerly, building in force and appearing to switch to westerly by about 45 seconds. The streetlights cease to shine, whether they were cut off from backup generator or flat-out destroyed.
Then, over the next 10 seconds, sparks of some sort fly. It’s unclear what those are. They could be electrical sparks from destroyed wires or traffic lights overhead. But they persist surprisingly long.
During the June 9, 1953 Worcester, Mass., F5 tornado, residents who sought shelter in their basement reported pebbles and other small debris being slung at the foundation so quickly that sparks resulted from the extreme friction. In Toledo, luminous orbs were observed to have accompanied the base of twin funnels on April 11, 1965.
Whatever the case, the glowing objects act as tracers, revealing winds turning due west and eventually from the northwest. The core of the tornado probably passed just behind the camera. Debris can be seen moving right to left.
At the same time, visibility quickly drops as rain pours down amid strong northerly or northwesterly winds. That’s the rear flank downdraft (RFD). It’s a surge of rain-cooled air and precipitation that crashes down on the backside of rotating thunderstorms. It also helps to tighten the tornadic circulation.
Eventually, the situation calms down. Debris can be seen tossed about. It’s about as close to a direct hit as possible — the video is a surefire reminder why it’s always necessary to seek shelter when a tornado warning is issued.