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.
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 trendiest hotspots, 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.
The roof came crashing down on Ronald Baldwin and Harry Nahay in the bedroom of their one-story brick home in East Nashville. “We couldn’t get out,” Baldwin said. “And so I just kept kicking and kicking until we finally made a hole.”
The roaring wind woke Evan and Carlie Peters, also in East Nashville, 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.”
With more than a dozen Super Tuesday polling places in Nashville’s Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, some of them with long lines. Election officials in Putnam County advised voters in eight precincts with damaged polling locations to vote at the main election office in Cookeville.
“None of us are yelling at each other, so that’s good,” said Ryan Rayburn of Nashville, who waited about 90 minutes to vote at the Cleveland Park Community Center, where people were sent after their regular precincts were closed due to storm damage.
Damage to the power grid left more than 44,000 customers in the dark. The weather also damaged gas lines, water mains and cellphone towers, making the rescue and recovery efforts much more difficult, authorities said.
Schools were closed in Nashville and beyond as families who were suddenly homeless tried to figure out their next steps. Hundreds of people went to a Red Cross shelter 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 weather also reduced much of the interior of the long-closed Tennessee State Prison in Nashville to huge piles of bricks, the state Department of Corrections said in a tweet. The prison formed the set of “The Green Mile” and other films.