NASHVILLE, TN — Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding at least 40 buildings and killing at least 24 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 continued to rise 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
Gov. Bill Lee said the death toll grew on Tuesday, with more people among the missing. “It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state,” Lee said. The governor ordered all non-essential state workers to stay home Tuesday 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
“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.”