Tornadoes early on Tuesday ripped across Tennessee as families slept, 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 US 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 wrecked homes and businesses across a 16km 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 3.2km path of destruction in Putnam, 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.
The death toll climbed steadily as first responders gingerly pulled apart wreckage.
Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris said that only 30 percent of the disaster area had received 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.
In Putnam, 128km east of Nashville, trees, vehicles and other loose, heavy items had completely flattened houses and businesses.
A van of long-time customers at a local eatery — who proudly stated that they ate there every morning — arrived to help clear debris just as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee stopped by to tour the devastation.
In one neighborhood, volunteers had found five bodies by Tuesday afternoon. Neighbors and sheriff’s officers were still looking for two more.
“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.
US President Donald Trump spoke with the governor by telephone and pledged federal assistance, the White House said.
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 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 hot spots, with restaurants, music venues, high-end apartment complexes and rising home prices threatening to drive out long-time residents.
“The dogs started barking before the sirens went off. They knew what was coming,” Paula Wade of East Nashville said. “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 and saw the damage at East End United Methodist Church.
“It’s this beautiful Richardsonian Romanesque church. The bell tower is gone, the triptych window of Jesus the good shepherd that they just restored and put back up a few weeks ago is gone,” she said.
Damage to the power grid left more than 44,000 customers in the dark, and the weather also damaged gas lines, water mains and cellphone towers, making the rescue and recovery efforts much more difficult, authorities said.
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