Tornado Rips through Germantown
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Tornado of 1994


November 27, 1994, 3:25 p.m.

A devastating tornado ravaged the northeast section of Germantown on Sunday, November 27 at 3:25 p.m., killing three people, injuring 22 others, and causing approximately $30 million in damage.  300 homes were damaged with at least 22 residences totally demolished.  

The tornado ripped a three-mile path of destruction through Germantown starting near the Oakleigh subdivision and traveling northeast out to the Fisherville community and into Fayette County.

The hardest hit in the city was the Dogwood Grove Subdivision where rescue workers spent 22 hours searching the rubble at 9635 Gotten Way for the Person family that was celebrating, having moved into the house three weeks earlier.  Fortunately, many people in this subdivision were out of town for the holiday, and several of the houses were still under construction and not occupied.

The family was holding a house-warming and family reunion, with 11 people inside the new home, when a Level 3 tornado with winds topping 200 miles per hour slammed into the neighborhood.  

Rescue workers from the Germantown Fire Department and neighboring areas such as Memphis, Collierville, Bartlett and Millington arrived immediately searching for victims.  Shelby County personnel joined with Tennessee Emergency Management Agency workers and volunteers, along with a special task force called the Urban Search and Rescue Team and trained dogs.

One victim, Walter V. Person, Jr. was found within two hours of the tornado, and his son Nicholas (11) and his brother-in-law Elijah Hewitt (48) were found on Monday, bringing the death toll to three.  Walter was a land surveyor and a principal with the firm Jackson Person and Associates in Memphis.  He had conducted many projects for the city of Germantown including the athletic fields near Cameron-Brown Park, the present  Germanton Library, the Greenbelt plans, and numerous boundary surveys for the city’s parks.  Eight family members were safely rescued from the scene after the tornado collapsed the roof on the house.

Immediately following the tornado, Germantown officials set up a command center at Houston Middle School, and Germantown Police and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department blocked off the area surrounding Dogwood Grove.  An Emergency shelter also was established at the school.  A tremendous police presence continued to guard the area days later.  

Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division officials reported 3,000 to 5,000 customers without power in the Germantown and Cordova areas Sunday evening.  Workers were checking for gas leaks and about 30 utility poles had been knocked down.  South Central Bell reported that buried equipment in the Germantown area prevented more extensive damage.  

Environmental Services unveiled its plan for collecting debris from the storm the following Wednesday, in a similar fashion to that utilized in last February’s Ice Storm.  Building materials and damaged home debris would not be picked up by the city, but those items could be disposed of through insurance and private contractual arrangements.  Germantown did not qualify for disaster relief from the State of Tennessee due to the fact that all reported homes were insured.  City Administrator Patrick Lawton estimated that the city would stand to lose $1 million in clean up fees for the storm damage, relatively equivalent to the $900,000 emergency budget reimbursed from the Ice Storm in February that same year.  

A spirit of cooperation and assistance quickly emerged among Germantown residents and their neighbors offering all manner of aid.  

Salvaggio, whose house was damaged in the storm, said he had never seen anything like the scene as the tornado passed through the area.  “I swear it was like The Wizard of Oz inside the house.  There was stuff floating around all inside the house…It’s the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen.  The sound, it sounded like a hundred trains coming over the house.”

Clay Bailey, the Commercial Appeal’s Germantown reporter said, “Germantown many times is chided for its perceived excesses in signage control, esthetics, and such things.  People question whether the city needs a $900,000 reserve fund in case there is a catastrophe, and Police Chief Boatwright makes purchases like the Remote Operations Center (ROC).  But last week’s events prove all the preparation is worth it.  The city was ready.  The mobile command center provided a place to run the operations on the extreme northeast corner of the city, where authorities, city officials and rescue teams could be in contact with crews only a short distance away from the command post at Houston Middle School.”  

Clay said, “your courteousness in allowing us to do our job is appreciated, and while our approach may seem callous at times, you should know that some of us, after invading the tragedy that all of you hoped you would never face, may have gone home and gotten a little emotional about what we saw and the caring of a community.”

There was also structural damage at Houston High School.  One second-floor wall of the building was ripped off and 93 of the building’s air conditioning/heating units were torn from the roof.  Houston Middle School remained open on Monday on a regular schedule while Houston High Schoool students and teachers began classes at Germantown High on Monday.  Germantown High School students attended class from 7:15 a.m. to 11:35 a.m., until the Christmas break beginning December 19th.  The Houston students attended school from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Sports activities were either canceled or postponed.

Mayor SalvaggiIo at Monday’s Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting, in an emotional tone, said, “I have never been more proud of this community than now.  The dedication and heroism on the scene of this disaster was something like I have never seen.  I am so proud of the way this community pulled together and for the outpouring of support.”

Source: Massive clean-up underway, Tornado rips city, Germantown News,12.1.94
Searchers pull 2 more bodies from home rubble of Germantown, The Commercial Appeal, 11.29.94, 11.30.94
Random tornado thoughts still swirling, The Commercial Appeal,11.24.1994


Tornadp Aftermath Newspaper Photo

Germantown News, Thursday, December 1, 1994. Photo made possible by Chuck Degan