Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Storm Part Two

Nashville examines tornado damage.

APRIL 27, 1998: 

Making the Scene
It wasn't just a disaster--it was a photo op

One expected result of the storm is that just about every major figure in Tennessee politics has made an obligatory visit to East Nashville. Al Gore, dressed in unblemished khakis, boots, and no tie, made an appearance that coincided, oddly enough, with press reports that were critical of his behavior on stops at disaster sites. Several pundits have taken shots at Gore, saying that in Alabama he only visited better-off white tornado victims even though poorer black people had been injured as well.

Maybe it was just coincidence, but Nashville TV stations photographed Gore hugging black people who had been in the storm's path.

Just about every important Democrat toured the area in Gore's wake. Fifth District Rep. Bob Clement took a look, as did Sixth District Rep. Bart Gordon, whose district is not even near East Nashville. Then, separately, the Republicans dropped by. U.S. Sens. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist did their thing. As for Mayor Phil Bredesen, he saw it all from helicopter, on foot, and using any other means available to him.

Despite the bigger names, the really fascinating parade through Lockeland Springs and Historic Edgefield included East Nashville's highly political sorts, who were organizing relief efforts, pulling limbs off buildings, or just driving around to survey the damage. Street for street, block for block, East Nashville has always exerted a disproportionate influence on local politics. When disaster struck, the familiar figures were all there, assisting, helping, and shaking a hand or two in the process.

Bill Boner, who grew up in East Nashville, and who is running for register of deeds, was accompanied by a handful of volunteers, dressed in Boner T-shirts and trooping up and down the streets in search of good deeds to do. Boner himself was a sweaty mess. "There's a lot of politics going on," he confided.

Billy Fields, who works in the city's juvenile courts and runs an East Nashville neighborhood association, donned overalls and was helping to organize volunteer efforts. As was John Stern, who heads the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance, and was once a candidate for Metro Council.

Eileen Beehan, who represents East Nashville in Council, was ubiquitous. Mayoral hopeful Bill Purcell was seen inspecting the damage, cruising the streets in his black Saturn. "This is a strong neighborhood," he said.
Chip Forrester, a former Gore staffer, who is only now recovering from stitches received when he fended off an attacker in his family's home earlier this year, also seemed to be everywhere at once. "This hasn't been a good year for the Forrester family," he said good-naturedly.

By Bruce Dobie



Funneling the News
God, imagemaker

Two years ago, at the height of the NFL Yes! frenzy, civic boosters kept hammering away at "exposure" as a motivation for snaring the Houston Oilers. The thinking was that, if we spent the budget of Titanic on an NFL team and a state-of-the-art stadium, people all over the world would see our city every time they clicked on Monday Night Football. Exposure! Our faces on TV! The pointy ears of the Batman Building bounced off every satellite in the galaxy! With liberty and Goo Goos for all!

As it turns out, we didn't have to fool with the stadium at all. We could've saved $300 million and had all the exposure we ever wanted. And all we had to do was let a tornado toss trees and trestles and roofs around the city like Styrofoam cups before a leafblower.

The immediate and overwhelming outside news coverage trained on Nashville was a sobering reminder of our place in the national consciousness. We see ourselves as a progressive city, a billion-dollar boomtown. But it was random, chaotic, unpredictable forces wholly beyond our control--the goddamn weather--that catapulted us to the forefront of the national news. Nashville, like Paducah, Ky., or Jonesboro, Ark., or all the towns across America thrashed by El Niño on America's Deadliest Storms!, is a flyspeck in the featureless mass that pundits call "the heartland." We're part of that gray screen behind every map in a Gannett news story, awaiting the misfortune that will give us our own pull-out box to separate us from the blob.

It isn't any accomplishment that puts us on the map this dramatically; it's calamity. Twice now in two weeks' time, Nashville has managed to command the attention of the global news media, and all it took was a celebrity funeral and a natural disaster. Two weeks ago, the news peg was Tammy Wynette's memorial service. Every local newscast marveled over the bank of cameras parked outside the Ryman. Their presence was such a shock that they became part of the story. They became a sort of perverse validation, as if we needed CNN and MSNBC to tell us that, yes, Tammy's life and music were indeed as important as we thought they were. With our self-image and sense of worth as awkwardly conflicted as ever, we probably did.

The cameras were out again in full force last Thursday. This time, though, they belonged mostly to tourists and citizens clutching their camcorders. They scanned the rubble outside the Music City Lounge. They tiptoed to the corner of Fifth and Woodland and peered into the devastation beyond. They peeked from doorways and storefront windows into the boiling sky. That it all ended up on national TV, from Dateline to CNN to the Weather Channel, teaches us two important lessons about the national news media:

Visuals set the agenda. Well, duh. To the networks, a tornado flattening Smyrna is not a story. But camcorder footage of a twister tossing a pick-up through Sam Ridley's living room would be a surefire ticket to 20/20. That's why the wholesale decimation of East Nashville, which no one thought to capture on tape, got less play than a twister forming murkily outside Channel 5's back door. Had the footage been even more dramatic--say, a funnel cloud ripping the Planet Hollywood globe from its axis and hurling it like a bowling ball into the Nashville Arena steeple--we'd've had Peter Jennings and Dan Rather outside Wolfy's instead of John Seigenthaler.

The American appetite for destruction is limitless. If you watched the local coverage Thursday evening, you saw the most sensational footage repeated with Zapruder-like regularity throughout the weekend. A funnel advances while a woman screams at a family member to shut off the camcorder and run for cover. The camera just can't peel itself away from the oncoming tornado, and you can feel the cameraman's primal fascination with the sight of the thing. There's a real sense of dejection when the P.O.V. finally droops to show the cameraman's feet dutifully trooping downstairs. You get the feeling the woman's screams finally reminded the cameraman he wasn't watching something on TV--something happening to someone far, far away.

I felt the same strange sense of remove whenever I watched the news last week. I felt it at work, when a portable TV showed a livid red smudge above my street. I felt it a few moments later, when a Channel 2 timetable predicted matter-of-factly that in four minutes a tornado would arrive on the doorstep of our office building in downtown Nashville. A call from my wife, huddled in our basement with our two cats, didn't make it seem any more real or immediate. The events were no longer happening to me. They were happening on TV.

For all the sensational updates and broadcasts, the image that best expressed Nashville was the most serene: an unwavering shot of a piece of Scotch-taped legal paper, shown without sound or comment. On it WTVF anchor Chris Clark had scribbled a brief update, telling the folks at home the station had been hit but everyone was OK. It was a reminder that, no matter how we're viewed by the rest of the country, we live in a city where not even disaster can stop the power of a polite handwritten note. At the same time, it was one of many reminders that we live in a city that doesn't get to choose how it makes the news.

By Jim Ridley


Uprooted
Where there once were trees, now there's mulch

There will be very little shade on the sidewalks of East Nashville this summer, or for many summers to come. From Shelby Avenue north to Eastland Avenue and beyond, towering hackberries and sycamores lie uprooted. Oaks and sugar maples as old as their 19th-century neighborhoods have been reduced to logs by the chain saws and then to mulch by the chipper trucks.

Scores of homes stand exposed to the curious gaze of sightseers. On entire blocks there is nothing taller than the blue-plastic-covered roofs of the houses. East Park is no longer a tree-shaded lawn but a muddy field littered with tree carcasses. Where stately magnolias once graced the grounds of the 1820s Weakley house on Rosebank Avenue, shattered limbs now claw the sullen sky.

East Nashville is not the only terrain stripped treeless by the tornado. All of Centennial Park north of the Parthenon looks like the western front of World War I. The sightline from the front porch of The Hermitage, which used to reveal an avenue of ancient cedars, now reaches clear and unimpeded to the Revco on Lebanon Road. "The worst part," says Hermitage marketing director Carolyn Brackett, "is that we've lost our buffer to Lebanon Road."

But in East Nashville, the tornado changed the look and feel of a whole neighborhood--for a lifetime. Chip Forrester, who lives on Russell Street in Edgefield, lost a 100-year-old oak to the storm. "We bought our home because of that tree," he recalls. "Now our backyard will be sunny for as long as I live. We can repair and rebuild the houses. But we can't fix the trees."

In the 13 years that I have lived in East End, the tree line has been my boundary between homeplace and every place else. When I drove from downtown past the barren wastes of the East Bank tow-in lot and I-65, I eagerly anticipated the green canopy of Edgefield. I took back routes through Lockeland Springs and along Riverside Drive to the grocery and dry cleaner, to the video and drug stores, preferring the slower pace of tree-lined side streets to the asphalt rush of Gallatin Road. Now I drive these same side streets and I have difficulty recognizing where I am.

Landscape architects who live in the neighborhood take a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that the Bradford pears of the east are history. They point out that it will be a good year for mulch. But for the rest of us who call it home, East Nashville used to be across the river and into the trees. Now it's just across the river.

By Christine Kreyling


From a Distance
A confessional of somebody who wasn't there

I was one of the lucky ones. One of my coworkers is still trying to process all that happened to her neighborhood last week. While she spent the weekend eating cold food and trying to read by flashlight, I did laundry, ate hot meals, watched movies on HBO, and chatted with friends. As horrible as it sounds--and it does sound horrible--last week's tornadoes left me with a lingering sense of giddiness. There was something irrational about the excitement of the up-to-the-minute reports that kept spewing forth from the radio and television all day. "At 3:30 the tornado will be at the corner of X and Y." But the warning didn't help. There was nothing that could be done to protect the corner of X and Y. Seeking shelter in the basement or bathroom can save your life--and that's a good thing. There is nothing, however, to be done to protect anything else.

I am not a storm chaser by any means, but in the moments before the first wave of tornadic destruction swept through downtown, I stood outside with coworkers watching for signs, and I could feel the beginning surges of adrenaline. I watched as the sky changed from an intense robin's-egg blue to a blue that was more like silver. The clouds began to move as if in a time-lapse sequence until a huge, misty cloud bank drifted over, the temperature plummeted, and we were ordered away from the windows and into the hall.

Sitting in the hall, feeling perfectly safe surrounded by reinforced concrete, I still had a tingly sensation. Perfectly calm, I watched the people around me as if I were having an out-of-body experience. I sat there without anxiety, without any idea of what was happening just blocks away, but without the cocksure confidence of tornado veterans.

As I scanned the hall I saw fear in some faces. But I also saw amazing composure in the face of a woman strolling around in bare feet, the drape from a hair salon still covering her clothes, her hair a work in progress, sandwiched up in strategically placed pieces of foil.

A group of young women joined the crowd in the hall as if they were entering a nightclub. They plopped down on the floor, completely oblivious to the fact that a whole line of people had to shift so that they could sit together. I listened as a coworker longed for California and its earthquakes, which strike with no time for nerve-wracking anticipation. In this era of disaster flicks and extreme sports, does such behavior come as a surprise?

That evening I settled into post-tornadic relief. I phoned relatives and popped popcorn. It was only then that I learned that the tornado had come darn close to the place where I had spent the afternoon. By that time, I was no longer giddy. I stayed up too late watching the storm, viewed from different angles and places around Nashville. I saw reruns of a video, recorded by Boston tourists, until I knew I could pick the couple out of a police lineup. I heard a woman scream "Charlie" over and over again. For hours on end, I saw the same street in East Nashville and the same pickup truck loaded down with bricks.

By the next morning, as friends and associates were tracked down, I began to get some sense of what it really means to recover from a tornado. If last week had been a disaster movie, the populace would now be walking around high-fiving each other. The incredibly fit leading characters would be striding triumphantly through the streets of East Nashville, a pet long presumed missing would jump into the arms of a kid, and a glorious sunset would frame the city.

But that's what happens in the movies. This was real life. I was one of the lucky ones. I was huddled safe in the hall.

By MiChelle Jones


On Saturday it seemed that the rain would never end. In Sylvan Park, there was no electricity, and Target was sold out of candles, even the scented votives. In the twilight downpour, sparks danced up and down the power lines running along the McCabe Golf Course, and a utility pole burst into flame.

Meanwhile, just blocks away at the corner of 31st and West End, a car's hazard lights were flashing. Navigating through the monsoon, other drivers were creeping past. On the sliver of grass next to the sidewalk, a man was holding a golf umbrella over an eight-ounce Yorkshire terrier. Squatting in the grass, traffic swerving around him, the dog was taking a pee. --John Bridges


Roll Up Your Sleeves
And make yourself useful

Disaster-relief coordinators say ready hands and generous hearts have been great in helping clean up the post-tornado wasteland that is East Nashville. We say, keep it up. Right now, however, what East Nashville really needs is stuff--lumber, bricks, nails, and other supplies, even communications equipment.

"There's a need for some cell phones," says Nashville Neighborhood Alliance president John Stern, who's been helping coordinate neighborhood volunteers. "I could deploy at least a dozen of them right now. I'd love to be able to give key volunteers a couple of cell phones--even a laptop computer with a fax modem so they could be getting faxes."


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