One year later, man describes surviving deadly Nashville tornado

Monica Danielle
·5 min read

One year ago, a deadly tornado outbreak struck Tennessee, killing 25 people. James Duncan, 28, was in bed with his girlfriend when a smartphone notification from AccuWeather alerted him to a deadly tornado approaching.

"I was just about to turn off the TV and go to sleep, and it's about 12:30 at this time, and my phone goes off and it's actually AccuWeather," Duncan recalled in an interview this week. "I get an alert, and it says: tornado warning, you know, tornado sighted."

The information was the first warning he and his girlfriend, Britni, received confirming an EF3 tornado that was tracking toward their apartment building in Nashville's Germantown community.

"At that point, I could hear it," James told AccuWeather in a Zoom interview. "I mean, I didn't know what I was hearing, honestly. It sounded like a freight train."

James says he ran to the window and peeked through the blinds. "I just saw a wall of black, and I didn't understand what I was looking at, but I was staring dead at it," he recalled. "I was staring at it for 5 full seconds, almost in shock ... at that point, stuff started hitting the window."

(AccuWeather / James Duncan)

He says he and Britni ran for the bathroom to ride out the twister.

"Once we got in there and shut the door, that's when you hear all these things start hitting the building and everything. We just held each other tight while it went right over us," he explained.

A full year later, much still stands out about those terrifying moments. "The weirdest thing was the pressure drop," he said, referring to a meteorological phenomenon that occurs inside a tornado. The air pressure is significantly lower at the center of a twister compared to areas along the outer edge. "Like, really feeling that -- and it was cold! It just got cold almost immediately, and your ears are popping, and you can feel that wild pressure drop."

The National Weather Service reported a total of 15 confirmed tornadoes across the state during last year's outbreak. In addition to the 25 people killed, more than 300 were injured. The hardest-hit area was Cookeville where an EF4 killed 19 of the 25 tornado victims. According to the NWS, the March 3, 2020, tornadoes were the worst the state has seen since the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, across East Tennessee and the Super Tuesday tornadoes on Feb. 5-6, 2008.

"It felt like forever but was probably only five or 10 seconds and then it starts to dissipate and go away," Duncan remembers. "I was just shaking! I don't know if she was shaking too because I was shaking so hard."

Duncan said after the twister had passed, he and Britni made their way outside to a neighborhood that suddenly seemed like a battlefield.

"The destruction. Oh my God, that was wild ...The best way to describe it is like being in a movie or a video game about a post-apocalyptic world because you see stuff hanging from power lines. You just see destruction everywhere," he said, adding, "and walking through it was strange. It was almost like a war zone, and everyone around you is in just as much shock as you are."

James and Britni joined dozens of dazed survivors emerging onto city street amid strewn debris, unable to process the magnitude of what they were witnessing. The neighborhood was evacuated, and the couple was able to stay with friends but ultimately had to move from their apartment when it was deemed uninhabitable.

James credits the AccuWeather alert on his phone with providing critical information that gave him a head start on the tornado. And he says there is one thing the alert taught him that he'll never forget: the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

"[A tornado] watch means: 'Watch out! There could be one!'" he said, referring to the lesser of the two alerts. And a tornado warning "means 'GTFO, there is a tornado there!'"

A year later, the Germantown community is still in recovery mode. While huge strides have been made, with the pandemic closures occurring just days after the outbreak, many homeowners and businesses are still struggling.

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"We probably would have been done with debris cleanup by the end of May, had we just been able to keep going," Lori Shinton, president and CEO of Hands On Nashville told News 4 Nashville. With the pandemic happening days after the destruction, the community's ability to recover was severely hindered.

"It was really bizarre to kick into fast gear," Shinton said, "and then come to a complete halt for some time."

As for James, who has since relocated to Florida with Britni, he believes in the community's ability to make a complete recovery because of the people who live there, his friends and former neighbors.

"The community support everybody showed, a lot of people showed up to help everyone who went through the disaster," he said. "I think that really goes to show a lot to the testament of not only Nashville and Tennessee people but the human race."

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