Tennessee tornadoes kill at least 25 people, many in their sleep
State officials make contingency plans for some affected voters participating in Super Tuesday
Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding more than 140 buildings and burying people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements. At least 25 people were killed, some before they could even get out of bed, authorities said.
Sirens and cellphone alerts sounded, but the twisters that struck in the hours after midnight moved so quickly that many people in their path could not flee to safer areas.
"It hit so fast, a lot of folks didn't have time to take shelter," Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said. "Many of these folks were sleeping."
Early findings by National Weather Service survey teams indicated that the damage just east of Nashville was inflicted by a tornado of at least EF-3 intensity, the agency said.
One twister caused severe damage across a 16-kilometre stretch of downtown Nashville, wrecking businesses and homes and destroying the tower and stained glass of a historic church. Another erased homes from their foundations along a three-kilometre path in Putnam County.
Super Tuesday polling stations damaged
Daybreak revealed a landscape littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines and huge broken trees, leaving city streets in gridlock. Schools, courts, transit lines, an airport and the state capitol were closed. More than a dozen polling stations were damaged, forcing Super Tuesday voters to wait in long lines at alternative sites.
The death toll jumped to 25 Tuesday afternoon, as first responders gingerly pulled apart wreckage, hoping to find people alive in the rubble of their homes. Putnam Sheriff Eddie Farris said only 30 per cent of the disaster area had a "hard check" by midday.
"A lot of these homes had basements and we're hopeful there are still people down in there," he said.
Nashville residents walked around in dismay as emergency crews closed off roads. Roofs had been torn off apartment buildings, large trees uprooted and debris littered many sidewalks. Walls were peeled away, exposing living rooms and kitchens in damaged homes. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets and piles of rubble.
"It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state," said Gov. Bill Lee. The governor ordered all non-essential state workers to stay home Tuesday before going up in a helicopter to survey the damage.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to visit the disaster area on Friday. "We send our love and our prayers of the nation to every family that was affected," he said. "We will get there, and we will recover, and we will rebuild, and we will help them."
The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms that stretched from Alabama into western Pennsylvania.
In Nashville, the twister's path was mostly north and east of the heart of downtown, sparing many of its biggest tourism draws — the honky tonks of Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, the storied Ryman Auditorium and the convention centre.
Instead the storm tore through areas transformed by a recent building boom. Germantown and East Nashville are two of the city's trendiest neighbourhoods, with restaurants, music venues, high-end apartment complexes and rising home prices threatening to drive out longtime residents.
"The dogs started barking before the sirens went off, they knew what was coming," said Paula Wade of East Nashville. "Then we heard the roar ... Something made me just sit straight up in bed, and something came through the window right above my head. If I hadn't moved, I would've gotten a face full of glass."
Metro Nashville police said crews were responding to about 40 building collapses in their area. Putnam authorities said an aerial tour revealed more than 100 structures destroyed or damaged.
With more than a dozen Super Tuesday locations in Nashville's Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, some of them with long lines. Tennessee's Secretary of State delayed opening polls in the disaster area for an hour, but said they would close as scheduled Tuesday night.
"Anyone that wants to vote, we want to create an opportunity for you," Davidson County elections administrator Jeff Roberts said. Because poll workers will be navigating through a damaged city to deliver results Tuesday night, he said the tallying may take longer than anticipated.
A reported gas leak forced an evacuation of the IMT building in the Germantown community, according to WSMV-TV. Photos showed dozens of people in the street carrying their belongings not long after the tornado moved through the city.
The American Red Cross of Tennessee said on its Twitter account that a shelter had been opened for displaced residents downtown at the Nashville Farmers Market, just north of the state capitol.
The outage also extended to the capitol building, forcing the cancellation of legislative meetings.
Metro Nashville Public Schools said its schools would be closed Tuesday because of the tornado damage. Wilson County, just east of metro Nashville, will close schools for the rest of the week.
The storm system left just scattered rain in its wake as it moved eastward, with a line of storms stretching from near Montgomery, Ala., into western Pennsylvania. Strong cells capable of causing damage were spotted in central Alabama, eastern Tennessee and the western Carolinas.
In rural Bibb County southwest of Birmingham, Ala., seven poll workers were getting ready to open the doors to Super Tuesday voters at the Lawley Senior Activity Center when cellphone alerts began going off with a tornado warning about 6:45 a.m. ET, said volunteer Gwen Thompson.
The storm knocked out electricity, Thompson said, but the precinct's two electronic voting machines had battery backups and a few people had cast ballots less than an hour later.
"We've been voting by flashlight," Thompson said.