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By Travis Loller and Kimberlee Kruesi, with the Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding at least 40 buildings and killing at least 19 people. One of the twisters caused severe damage across downtown Nashville, destroying the stained glass in a historic church and leaving hundreds of people homeless.
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, and some damaged polling stations had to be moved only hours before Super Tuesday voting began.
The death toll jumped to 19 on Tuesday, Tennessee Emergency Management Spokeswoman Maggie Hannan said, after police and fire crews spent hours pulling survivors and bodies from wrecked buildings.
“Last night was a reminder about how fragile life is,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a Tuesday morning news conference.
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. He ordered all non-essential state workers to stay home before going up in a helicopter to survey the damage.
The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms with a line of storms that stretched from near Montgomery, Alabama, into western Pennsylvania.
In Nashville, it tore through areas transformed by a recent building boom. Germantown and East Nashville are two of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, 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,” 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 and saw the damage at the East End United Methodist Church.
“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.
Wade immediately recalled how a tornado damaged her own St. Ann’s Episcopal church down the street in 1998.
“I had no idea that I still had some PTSD from that other experience so long ago, but the sound of the sirens, that low sound, there’s just nothing like it. To look out and see the church, its just heartbreaking. It brings out everything that happened to St. Ann’s.”
The roof came crashing down on Ronald Baldwin and Harry Nahay in bedroom of the one-story brick home they share in East Nashville. “We couldn’t get out. We couldn’t get out,” said Baldwin. “And so I just kept kicking and kicking until we finally made a hole.”
Also in East Nashville, the roaring wind woke Evan and Carlie Peters, 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. “The ceiling started coming down on us, so 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, honestly,” she said.
One tornado carved a path about 10 miles (16 kilometers) long, reportedly staying on the ground from near downtown Nashville along Interstate 40 to the city’s eastern suburbs of Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Hermitage.
“Our community has been impacted significantly,” the Mt. Juliet Police Department tweeted. Homes were damaged and injuries were reported, the department said. ”We continue to search for injured. Stay home if you can.”
Videos posted online showed what appeared to be a well-defined tornado flashing with lightning as it moved quickly across the Nashville area.
Metro Nashville police said crews were responding to about 40 building collapses. Among them was the Basement East Nashville, a popular music venue that had just held an election rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The crowd left shortly before the twister struck, the Tennessean reported.
The disaster affected voting in Tennessee, one of 14 Super Tuesday states. Some polling sites in Nashville’s Davidson County were moved, and sites there as well as in Wilson counties were opening an hour late but still closing at the same time, Secretary of State Tre Hargett announced.
Davidson County elections administrator Jeff Roberts said voters from anywhere in the county can go to two so-called “supersites” to cast their ballots. “Anyone that wants to vote, we want to create an opportunity for you,” he 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 Germantown, according to WSMV-TV. Dozens of people, suddenly homeless, were seen carrying their belongings through garbage-strewn streets after the tornado blew through.
Nashville Electric tweeted that four of its substations were damaged in the tornado. Power outages were affecting more than 44,000 customers early Tuesday, the utility company said.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Gillum Ferguson, said hundreds of people went to a Red Cross shelter for displaced residents at the Nashville Farmers Market, just north of the state capitol, but a power outage there forced people to move again to the Centennial Sportsplex.
The outage also extended to the Capitol, forcing the cancellation of legislative meetings.
The storm killed some animals and scattered others as it destroyed green houses and a barn at a Tennessee State University research station in North Nashville, causing damage that could total $90 million or more, said Mike Krause, who directs Tennessee’s higher education commission.
Several airplane hangars were destroyed and power lines were downed at John C. Tune Airport, Nashville International’s sister airport in West Nashville, where spokeswoman Kym Gerlock urged people to stay away until further notice.
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. Strong cells capable of causing damage were spotted in central Alabama, eastern Tennessee and the western Carolinas.
Early morning storms also damaged homes and toppled trees in rural central Alabama, where the National Weather Service reported winds up to 60 mph (97 kmh) and issued tornado warnings for at least five counties.
In rural Bibb County southwest of Birmingham, seven poll workers were getting ready to open the doors to Super Tuesday voters at the Lawley Senior Activity Center when cellphone alerts began sounding a tornado warning about 6:45 a.m., said volunteer Gwen Thompson.
“Our children were calling too, telling us, ‘Get in the bathroom!’” she said. “We all got in the bathroom and we’re OK, but lots of trees are down.” The storm knocked out electricity, Thompson said, but the precinct’s two electronic voting machines had battery backups and people were casting ballots shortly thereafter.
“We’ve been voting by flashlight,” Thompson said.