A quarter-century ago, on January 22, 1999, at 4:15 a.m., a powerful F4 tornado struck the heart of Clarksville.
It was a history-making natural disaster that caused the collapse of many treasured structures in the historic downtown area, before dissipating near the St. Bethlehem area of the City.
No lives were lost in this 1999 tornado, but there were five recorded injuries, the National Weather Service (NWS) recorded.
At that time, Clarksville had a population of about 89,000 people, compared to the current Census estimate of close to 177,000. Then, as is still the case now, Clarksville was Tennessee’s fifth-largest city.
NWS, in its records, notes that the official Tornado Warning for the event of 25 years ago was issued on January 22, 1999, in the pre-dawn hours, at 3:54 a.m.
On an unusually humid and warm, and ultimately stormy, mid-winter January night, NOAA Weather Radio awakened many sleepy Clarksvillians with the urgent call to “take cover immediately.”
Then, swiftly, the tornado, moving on a northeasterly path, ripped apart a five-block area of downtown, and tore through part of the Austin Peay State University campus.
Most notably, the historic Montgomery County Courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was left in ruins along with what had been known for many decades as the home of Tennessee’s oldest newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle.
Several of Clarksville’s oldest churches were hard-hit, including Madison Street United Methodist, and Trinity Episcopal.
The Clarksville Police Department, supported by the National Guard, closed off downtown from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. to prevent looting of the many businesses and professional offices that were hit.
It was ultimately determined, based on the NWS report, that 124 buildings were destroyed, and 562, damaged, comprising a mix of residential, commercial, government, public, and APSU structures. The final damage total was assessed at $72.7 million.
“Downtown Clarksville did rebuild, in some ways better than ever. It wasn’t an easy process. But now, the heart of Clarksville has had much of its earlier prominence restored through a combination of public and private investment,” said Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts.
F&M Bank Arena and Downtown Commons will be joined in months ahead by an expanded Clarksville Performing Arts Center on the site of the Roxy Theatre, surrounded by new and unique shops and restaurants, all tying downtown seamlessly into the expanding APSU campus.
Almost 25 years later, Clarksville was struck again by a tornado, this time across a 12-mile, heavily-residential swath of the northern part of the City, resulting in four deaths.
The northeasterly path of this early-afternoon, and highly-visible tornado – at times around 600 yards wide, encompassed a stretch from Fort Campbell’s Sabre Army Airfield, to areas along and around Garrettsburg Road, Britton Springs Road, and Ringgold Road, as well as Peacher’s Mill, Needmore and Tiny Town roads.
It was a horrifying spectacle, occurring in broad daylight, and widely captured on video.
The tragedy remains fresh and painful, and now, Dec. 9, 2023, is another date that will forever live in Clarksville’s memory.
Clarksville and Montgomery County are now only a little over one month into the recovery phase. It’s still early.
But as with the downtown tornado of January 1999, it’s already clear that the recovery from the Dec. 9, 2023, tornado, will feature the united resolve of a community that has great pride and determination.
The value of this united front is one of the greatest lessons learned from the adversity of a local event - one quarter-century ago.
"Then, as now, we know Clarksville to be generous in spirit,” said Mayor Pitts. “The outpouring of volunteers, supplies and money to help those in need was great in 1999, and is greater this time.
“The major differences in the two events are the four people who died as a result of the December storm, and the number of residents who have had their lives disrupted in this latest storm. As we have said, there is no task too hard, no challenge too great, and no burden too difficult for us to overcome.
“We will be with our neighbors until the end,” Mayor Pitts said.
Aerial Photo by David Smith: Downtown Clarksville as it appears today