When Hermitage resident Vesia Hawkins woke up at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, she opened Twitter and started following along with an account that had kept her company during storms past. @NashSevereWx, run by three men for whom weather is a passion but not a full-time job, has now been sharing tweet-sized weather updates for more than a decade.
They are not meteorologists — although they do partner with the National Weather Service to get information out to the public — but they’ve become a go-to resource for many during potential natural disasters. On Saturday, tens of thousands watched the account’s YouTube livestream.
When storms are expected, the operation is a well-oiled machine, as partner Will Minkoff explained to WPLN News: One partner handles incoming reports and questions, another handles outgoing tweets, and the third runs the livestream video.
“What we really spend our time planning for is who’s going to get rest when,” he said.
But it was all-hands-on-deck for much of the night, as partner Andrew Leeper started up a livestream and the tornado warnings started rolling in.
“All right, guys, listen to me. Listen to me,” he said at one point, while sitting alone in his home office. “If you’re in western Davidson County, you’ve got to enact your tornado plan now. All right? You don’t have much time left.”
A while later, as the storm front moved east, he gave the same directions to residents in Hermitage, where Hawkins lives.
“He’s like, ‘Get your shoes, get into your safe place.’ And I mean, like a 5-year-old kid, I woke my husband up, we got our dog, and we went into the tiny little bathroom in my house. We listened,” she said.
She pays attention in part because they’re primarily on Twitter, which makes the information easy for Hawkins to access on her phone. She loves some television meteorologists, she says. (“Lelan Statom [with News Channel 5] comes into our living rooms. He has our hearts.”) But the Nashville Severe Weather partners are also especially relatable in their lack of fancy equipment or state-of-the-art studios. They feel like neighbors, she says.
“They are just people who happen to be really, really knowledgeable about things that most of us don’t understand,” she said.
This came into sharp focus when Leeper paused his commentary on the livestream to go wake up his family, as a potential tornado came closer to his house.
“So you guys just sit here with this radar while I go wake them up, and I’ll be right back,” he said, calmly, to the thousands of people viewing.
That moment was emotional for Hawkins. Her father died recently. She had just laid him to rest last week. “He was, to me, such a servant. And this guy represented that for me. Because while he is helping us, he’s taken a moment from saving our lives to make sure he takes care of his family,” she said.
Ultimately, the worst of the storm hit elsewhere: It was neighboring Kentucky that suffered the most fatalities, and four people died in West Tennessee. As of Sunday night, the National Weather Service had confirmed seven tornadoes in Middle Tennessee.
But Minkoff said that being a part of storm coverage, as a kind of first responder, takes a mental toll.
“When there is important work to be done, the three of us have the ability to set aside the emotional component and deliver more of a helpful, operational feel to what we do. But in the days following … you start to hear some of those stories, and they do weigh on you,” he said.
“All three of us have had moments of introspection, counseling — sessions where we talk amongst ourselves, sessions where we talk with professionals — about our feelings following a loss-of-life incident.”
Toward the end of the livestream, as the tornadoes moved further from Nashville, Leeper hinted at that.
“I don’t like these nights,” he said, sounding weary for perhaps the first time all night. “But we feel a very deep calling, if you want to call it that, to help with this any way we can. And that’s where we are.”
Samantha Max contributed to this reporting.