Rescuers searched through shattered Tennessee neighborhoods for bodies Tuesday, less than a day after tornadoes ripped across Nashville and other parts of the state as families slept. At least 24 people were killed, some in their beds, authorities said.
The twisters that struck in the hours after midnight shredded more than 140 buildings and buried people in piles of rubble and wrecked basements. The storms 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."
The governor declared an emergency and sent the National Guard to help with search-and-rescue efforts. State emergency officials, who initially reported at least 25 dead, revised the toll to 24 fatalities on Tuesday evening after determining one death counted earlier was not storm-related.
An unspecified number of people were missing.
It's the deadliest tornado event since March 3, 2019, when twisters killed 23 people in Lee County, Alabama exactly one year ago, according to NBC News.
It's also the second deadliest tornado event in Tennessee's history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center. Tornadoes killed 38 people in the state on March 22, 1952.
U.S. & World
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.
Photos: Tornadoes Leave Behind Trails of Devastation in Nashville
One twister wrecked homes and businesses across a 10-mile (16 kilometer) stretch of Nashville that included parts of downtown. It smashed more than three dozen buildings, including destroying the tower and stained glass of a historic church. Another tornado damaged more than 100 structures along a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) path of destruction in Putnam County, wiping some homes from their foundations and depositing the wreckage far away.
Daybreak revealed landscapes littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines and huge broken trees, making many city streets and rural roads impassable. Schools, courts, transit lines and an airport were closed. More than a dozen polling stations were also damaged, forcing Super Tuesday voters to wait in long lines at alternative sites.
In Putnam County, 80 miles (some 130 kilometers) east of Nashville, houses and businesses were completely flattened. In one neighborhood, volunteers found five bodies. Neighbors and sheriff’s officers were still looking for two more. Later, authorities imposed an 8 p.m.-8 a.m. curfew in the county and reported one looting arrest.
Nashville residents walked around in dismay on streets and sidewalks littered with debris, in neighborhoods where missing walls and roofs left living rooms and kitchens exposed. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets and piles of rubble.
"Last night was a reminder about how fragile life is," Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a Tuesday morning news conference. "We are resilient and we're going to rebuild."
During Gov. Bill Lee's tour of Putnam County, homeowners dug through debris, trying to salvage any items not destroyed. One young woman held up a clean green blouse while standing on a second floor of a home that had no roof.
"It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state," said Lee, who ordered nonessential state workers to stay home and then boarded a helicopter to survey the damage.
President Donald Trump spoke with the governor by phone and pledged federal assistance, the White House said. Trump also 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," Trump said. "We will get there, and we will recover, and we will rebuild, and we will help them."
In Nashville, the twister's path was mostly north and east of the heart of downtown, sparing many of the city's biggest tourism draws — the honky tonks of Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry House, the storied Ryman Auditorium and the convention center.
Instead the storm tore through the largely African American areas of Bordeaux and North Nashville as well as neighborhoods transformed by a recent building boom. Germantown and East Nashville are two of the city's trendiest hotspots, 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."
Then she looked across the street at the East End United Methodist Church and said the damage broke her heart.
"It's this beautiful Richardson Romanesque church. The bell tower is gone, the triptych widow of Jesus the good shepherd that they just restored and put back up a few weeks ago is gone," she said.
The roof came crashing down on Ronald Baldwin and Harry Nahay in the bedroom of their one-story brick home in East Nashville. "We couldn’t get out," Baldwin said. "And so I just kept kicking and kicking until we finally made a hole."
The roaring wind woke Evan and Carlie Peters, also in East Nashville, but they had no time to reach the relative safety of an interior bathroom.
"Within about 10 seconds, the house started shaking," Carlie Peters said. "I jumped on top of the ground. He jumped on top of me. The ceiling landed on top of him. ... we’re grateful to be alive."
With more than a dozen Super Tuesday polling places in Nashville's Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, some of them with long lines. Election officials in Putnam County advised voters in eight precincts with damaged polling locations to vote at the main election office in Cookeville.
Hours later, a judge ruled that some Tennessee polls must extend voting hours after four Democratic presidential candidates sued to keep the polls open, a Democratic party spokeswoman said.
Schools were closed in Nashville and beyond as families who were suddenly homeless tried to figure out their next steps. Hundreds of people went to a Red Cross shelter at the Nashville Farmers Market, just north of the state Capitol, but a power outage there forced them to move again to the Centennial Sportsplex.
The weather also reduced much of the interior of the long-closed Tennessee State Prison in Shelbyville to huge piles of bricks, the state Department of Corrections said in a tweet. The prison formed the set of "The Green Mile" and other films.
Lee said he observed numerous examples of people coming together to help one another. "In the worst of circumstances, the best of people comes out, and that's what we're seeing," he said.
Just as the governor stopped by to tour the devastation in Putnam County, a van of longtime customers at a local eatery — who proudly stated they ate there every morning — arrived to help clear debris.
In the small town of Baxter, Mike Stephens was awakened when a big tree crashed through the roof of his house. He started cleaning up as soon as the sun rose. He cut up one tree and had help from a neighbor with a backhoe and a man who stopped by with a chainsaw.
"I’ve only met him once, and he just happened to show up while we’re out here," Stephens said of his neighbor. "And then this other guy he just happened to stop by. I don’t know him."
Wayne Stephens, a technician at a local car dealership, had Tuesday off from his job. With no damage to his home, he got in his truck with his chainsaw. He’s not related to Mike Stephens and had never met him. He said he only wanted to help "as much as I can."
Associated Press writers Kristin Hall, Jonathan Mattise, Mark Humphrey, Adrian Sainz, Teresa Walker, Wade Payne, Rebecca Reynolds Yonker and Jay Reeves contributed to this report.