Updated 9:20 p.m. ET
Tornadoes gashed through central Tennessee early Tuesday, with the worst damage concentrated in and around Nashville. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says at least 24 people were killed across four counties, and there are fears the death toll could climb as first responders continue to search for victims.
A state of emergency was in effect across Tennessee. Officials say that dozens of buildings across the area have collapsed and that some 48,000 Nashville Electric customers are without power. Thousands more, including 17,000 residents in Wilson County and another 8,000 in Cumberland, Putnam and Jackson counties, are also without power.
“It is a tragic day in our state. A sad day,” Gov. Bill Lee said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. Lee initially reported 25 deaths, but officials later reduced the toll to 24, saying one of the earlier reported deaths was not storm-related.
This all comes as residents take part in Super Tuesday presidential primary voting.
“Over two-thirds of the length of Tennessee seems to have been damaged by storms last night,” Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday in an interview with NPR and WBUR’s Here and Now.
He said National Guardsmen, firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders were assessing the damage, structure by structure, in the affected areas.
President Trump tweeted Tuesday: “The Federal Government is with you all of the way during this difficult time.” Speaking at the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., he said, “Our hearts are full of sorrow for the lives that were lost.”
The president said he would be traveling to the area on Friday.
Gov. Lee called the deaths in his state “heartbreaking.”
“We have had loss of life all across the state,” he said at a Tuesday morning news conference.
The highest number of fatalities occurred in Putnam County, with 18 reported, according to officials. Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said the city set up a special morgue for tornado victims, while 65 people were being treated for injuries.
Porter also told reporters a storm carved a path about a quarter mile wide and two miles in length that damaged at least 100 structures or more, including many that are “totally gone.”
WPLN, the NPR member station in Nashville, reports at least six people are receiving care at the main Vanderbilt University Medical Center campus, while 23 others are at Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital in Lebanon, Tenn. All are in stable condition, WPLN reports.
WPLN reporter Blake Farmer described debris strewn across one section of East Nashville.
“Just debris everywhere, roofs that are gone, windows that have been blown out a good part of an old historic church that’s laying in the street as rubble, a few buildings that have basically collapsed,” Farmer told NPR’s Morning Edition. “I’m looking down an alley, there are power lines just all netted over the alley, and pieces of metal roofing and all sort of debris hanging everywhere.”
Tornado damage is responsible for the collapse of at least 40 structures in the city, according to the Nashville Fire Department.
One of those structures is the Basement East, a popular concert venue that hosted a benefit concert for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Monday night, before the tornado hit, according The Tennessean newspaper. The tornado ripped through the building at around 1:15 a.m. Tuesday, co-owner Mike Grimes told the paper, saying five employees found shelter “with seconds to spare before the roof blew off.”
Public schools throughout Nashville were closed Tuesday, according to the official Twitter account for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
There was also “significant damage” to the city’s John C. Tune Airport. Doug Kreulen, the president of the Nashville Airport Authority, tweeted images of metal roofing ripped off buildings and what appeared to be planes torn apart and buried under debris.
Happening Now: we are responding to reports of approx. 40 structure collapses around Nashville. Please avoid downed powerline and storm debris.
— Nashville Fire Dept (@NashvilleFD) March 3, 2020
Nashville International Airport, the city’s main air hub, is fully operational, though officials have warned travelers that road conditions may make getting to and from the airport difficult.
A “line of severe storms” caused significant damage to buildings, roads and bridges across multiple counties, according to TEMA.
The JWN Terminal needs work and we’ll need new refueling trucks as well. pic.twitter.com/QPQqFiul6i
— Doug Kreulen (@DougKreulen) March 3, 2020
“The State of Tennessee has activated a strong coordinated response effort to last night’s devastating storms,” Lee tweeted Tuesday morning. “In the hours ahead, we will continue deploying search and rescue teams, opening shelters across the state, and sending emergency personnel to our communities hit hardest.”
Officials are cautioning residents to keep roads free for emergency personnel and to stay away from damaged buildings or hazardous locations. Emergency officials are also urging residents to refrain from calling 911 unless it is a life-threatening emergency.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper sought to project a message of unity.
“Nashville is hurting and our community has been devastated,” he tweeted. “My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones. Be sure to lend a helping hand to a neighbor in need, and let’s come together as a community once more. Together, we will get through this and come out stronger.”
Maria and I send our prayers across Tennessee this morning as our state suffers from last night’s storms. I am at @T_E_M_A this morning working closely with our emergency and local officials and coordinating resources to help our neighbors in need.
— Governor Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) March 3, 2020
TEMA officials say emergency shelters have been opened in churches in Cookeville, Mount Juliet and Lebanon, and at a sportsplex in Nashville.
Davidson County, which includes Nashville, pushed back the opening of its polling centers by one hour to 8 a.m., citing storm damage. The polls are still scheduled to close at 7 p.m. central time, as originally planned.
Some polling centers in Davidson, Putnam and Wilson counties were affected by the tornadoes, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State, and the city of Nashville lists several polling place changes.
Nashville is hurting, and our community has been devastated. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones. Be sure to lend a helping hand to a neighbor in need, and let’s come together as a community once more. Together, we will get through this and come out stronger.
— Mayor John Cooper (@JohnCooper4Nash) March 3, 2020