Tornadoes devastate Tennessee, killing at least 25 people

NASHVILLE, Tennessee, March 4 ------ 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 25 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 the county to help with search-and-rescue efforts. Early findings by National Weather Service survey teams indicated that the damage in Nashville and Wilson County to the east was inflicted by a tornado of at least EF-3 intensity, the agency said. 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. The death toll climbed steadily as first responders gingerly pulled apart wreckage. Sheriff Eddie Farris said only 30 percent of the Putnam County 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 County, 80 miles (128 kilometers) east of Nashville, trees, vehicles and other loose, heavy items had completely flattened houses and businesses. A van of longtime customers at a local eatery — who proudly stated they ate there every morning — arrived to help clear debris just as Gov. 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. Nashville residents walked around 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.

“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. During the governor’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. The Red Cross set up a shelter with 50 cots at a church in nearby Cookeville for those left homeless by the storm who had nowhere else to stay, said Anita Murrell, who helps manage Red Cross disaster response volunteers in Tennessee.

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.” The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms that stretched from Alabama into western Pennsylvania.