NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding at least 40 buildings and killing at least nine people. One of the twisters caused severe damage across downtown Nashville.
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.
"Last night was a reminder about how fragile life is," Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a Tuesday morning news conference.
Residents of the historic Germantown neighborhood 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 toppled, exposing living rooms and kitchens in damaged homes. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets and piles of rubble.
Gov. Bill Lee said the death toll grew to nine 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 that caused damage across Tennessee.
It ripped through parts of the metropolitan area that have been 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.
One tornado touched down near downtown and reportedly stayed on the ground for about 10 miles (16 kilometers), into Nashville's eastern suburbs, following a path parallel to Interstate 40 and causing more damage in Mt. Juliet, Lebanon, Hermitage and other communities.
“Our community has been impacted significantly," the Mt. Juliet Police Department tweeted. Multiple homes were damaged and multiple injuries were reported, the department said. ”We continue to search for injured. Stay home if you can."
Metro Nashville Police said crews were responding to about 40 building collapses around the city.
John C. Tune Airport, Nashville International's sister airport in West Nashville, “sustained significant damage due to severe weather," spokeswoman Kim Gerlock said in a statement early Tuesday morning. Several hangars have been destroyed and power lines are down, so the public should stay away until further notice, she said.
A video posted online from east Nashville showed what appeared to be a well-defined tornado moving quickly across the city, flashing with lightning as it ripped open living rooms and kitchens in damaged homes.
Among the collapsed buildings was 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 Basement East Nashville, the Tennessean reported.
The disaster impacted voting in Tennessee, one of 14 Super Tuesday states. Some polling sites in Nashville were moved, and sites across Davidson and county and Wilson counties were opening an hour late but still closing at the same time, Secretary of State Tre Hargett announced.
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.
The American Red Cross of Tennessee opened a shelter for displaced residents downtown 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 Tennessean reported.
The outage also extended to the capitol building, forcing the cancellation of legislative meetings.
Nashville Electric tweeted that four of its substations were damaged in the tornado. Power outages as of 4 a.m. were affecting more than 44,000 customers, the utility company said.
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, with a line of storms stretching from near Montgomery, Alabama into western Pennsylvania. 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 going off with 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 a few people had cast ballots less than an hour later.
“We’ve been voting by flashlight,” Thompson said.
AP contributors include Travis Loller and Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama.