By Timothy Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) – Powerful tornadoes tore through Nashville, Tennessee and surrounding counties early on Tuesday, killing at least 22 people, leaving others missing and reducing homes and businesses to rubble even as voters throughout the state cast ballots in the Super Tuesday presidential primary.
The death toll may rise given the number of people who remain unaccounted for following the twisters, which struck about 1 a.m. central standard time (2 p.m. eastern) Governor William Lee said at a news briefing.
Lee did not estimate how many people remained missing following his visit to devastated neighborhoods of Nashville, the state capitol, but said rescue teams were going door to door searching for trapped or injured residents.
“We encourage all Tennesseans to join us in praying for the families across our state that are facing tragedy today. Thank you to our first responders for working around the clock to keep us safe on this difficult day, Lee said on Twitter, describing the damage as “surreal.”
The National Weather Service said eight tornadoes reportedly touched down in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky but that number could change following further analysis. It was not yet clear how many landed a direct hit on Nashville.
In addition to the fatalities, at least 30 people were injured and about 48 buildings were destroyed in Nashville, with many more damaged, Fire Department Director Chief William Swann said. Tens of thousands of people were left without power.
“Severe weather and tornados have impacted several counties in Tennessee. Counties with the greatest impacts include Davidson, Wilson, and Putnam Counties,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a post on its website.
The storm struck as many were sleeping in Nashville, home to 691,000 people and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.
POLLING STATIONS STAY OPEN
Pictures and video posted on Twitter showed lightning illuminating the dark sky as the twisters roared through the country music capital, and daybreak revealed dozens of leveled houses and businesses.
Tennessee is one 14 U.S. states holding presidential primary elections on Super Tuesday and despite the destruction, polling sites were mostly open for voting, officials said.
Crushed vehicles, piles of debris and broken power lines littered streets blocked by rescue vehicles. Residents carried away belongings from ravaged homes.
Greg Poulson, a 61-year-old man who lives in a Nashville homeless encampment with about 85 other people, said wind gusts lifted him off the ground as he ran underneath a bridge.
“I had a tree fall on my tent,” Poulson said. “The storm dropped right on top of us. We were ground zero.”
Charlotte Cooper, a French teacher at a Nashville Classical Charter School, said she felt lucky a twister had skipped over her house, which still suffered cracked windows and a downed fence.
“It’s like a war zone,” she said.
Apart from the public buildings set to be used for polling, schools, district offices and courts were closed.
Lee said he had spoken to the Trump administration about federal assistance. President Donald Trump said that he will go to Tennessee on Friday.
The twister knocked down power lines, and one utility pole dangled horizontally in the street in the Donelson area, home to country music’s most famous concert stage, the Grand Ole Opry.
Nashville Electric, the city’s public utility, said there were more than 47,000 customers without power, with damage to four substations, 15 primary distribution lines, and multiple power poles and lines.
John C. Tune Airport, about 8 miles from downtown Nashville, “sustained significant damage” and several hangars were destroyed, the airport said on its website.
Another 25,000 homes and businesses were without power elsewhere in Tennessee, emergency officials said.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)