By TRAVIS LOLLER and KIMBERLEE KRUESI
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee as people slept early Tuesday, shredding at least 140 buildings and killing at least 22 people. Authorities described painstaking efforts to find survivors in piles of rubble and wrecked basements as the death toll climbed.
One twister caused severe damage across a 10-mile (16 kilometer) stretch of downtown Nashville, wrecking businesses and homes and destroying the tower and stained glass of a historic church. Another erased homes from their foundations along a two-mile (3.2-kilometer) path in Putnam County.
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. More than a dozen polling stations were damaged, forcing Super Tuesday voters to wait in long lines at alternative sites.
The death toll jumped to 22 Tuesday as first responders gingerly pulled apart the wreckage, hoping to find people alive in the rubble of their homes. Putnam Sheriff Eddie Farris said only 30 percent of the disaster area had a “hard check” by mid-day. “A lot of these homes had basements and we’re hopeful there are still people down in there,” he said.
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 nonessential state workers to stay home just before he was set to fly in a helicopter to survey damage.
President Donald Trump 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,” he 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.
In Nashville, the twister’s path was mostly north and east of the heart of downtown, sparing many of its 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 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 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 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.
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,” she said. “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,” 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. “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.”
Metro Nashville police said crews were responding to about 40 building collapses in their area. Putnam authorities said an aerial tour revealed more than 100 structures destroyed or damaged.
With more than a dozen Super Tuesday locations in Nashville’s Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, some of them with long lines. Tennessee’s Secretary of State delayed opening polls in the disaster area for an hour, but said they would close as scheduled Tuesday night.
“Anyone that wants to vote, we want to create an opportunity for you,” Davidson County elections administrator Jeff Roberts 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.
Schools were closed in Nashville and beyond. Nashville Electric tweeted that four of its substations were damaged in the tornado. More than 44,000 customers lost power early Tuesday, the utility company said.
The tornado blew down a major Tennesee Valley Authority transmission line in Putnam County, and also damaged gas lines, water mains and cell phone towers, making the recovery much more difficult, authorities 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 them to move again to the Centennial Sportsplex.
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.
AP contributors include Jonathan Mattise and Mark Humphrey in Nashville; Adrian Sainz in Memphis; Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky; and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama.