By Timothy Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) – A cluster of powerful tornadoes ravaged Nashville and other parts of Tennessee on Tuesday, killing at least 22 people, reducing homes and businesses to splinters and leaving tens of thousands of people without electricity.
The death toll may rise given the number of people who remain missing statewide, said Governor William Lee, during a morning news briefing.
Lee toured neighborhoods of the city known as the capital of country music, as rescue teams went door to door, searching damaged structures for trapped or injured residents. Later in a Twitter post, he described the damage as “surreal.”
Kathy Martin, 50, who lives in North Nashville, was roused from sleep early in the morning when a large tree ripped into her home’s roof and crashed into her bedroom.
“My screens were flying off and there was a big rumble. Then I heard a big pop and it was over,” she said as she dropped belongings and medication off at the Centennial Sportsplex, a sports center serving as a shelter for the displaced. “It scared the life out of me.”
The National Weather Service said there were eight reported tornadoes that touched down in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky but it was uncertain how many plowed through Nashville.
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.
Tennessee was one 14 states holding primary elections on Super Tuesday. Despite the widespread destruction, polling sites at schools and elsewhere were mostly open for voting, officials said.
“We want people to exercise their rights and get out there and vote,” Lee said.
As the storm strafed central Nashville, the state capital, lightning illuminated the darkened sky, video posted on Twitter showed. Daybreak revealed dozens of leveled houses and businesses in the city of 691,000, which has become one of the fastest growing in the United States.
Greg Poulson, 61, a homeless man who lives in an encampment with about 85 other people, said wind gusts lifted him slightly 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.”
Crushed vehicles, piles of debris and broken power lines littered streets blocked by rescue vehicles. Residents carried away belongings from ravaged homes.
Charlotte Cooper, a French teacher at a Nashville Classical Charter School, said she felt lucky a twister had skipped over her house, which suffered cracked windows and a downed fence.
“It’s like a war zone,” she said as she surveyed the damage around her neighborhood.
Apart from the public buildings set to be used for polling, schools, district offices and courts were closed due to tornado damage.
The governor said he spoke to the White House about federal assistance and he planned to assess the damage in a helicopter. 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, news pictures showed.
Nashville Electric, the city’s public utility, said there were more than 47,000 customers without power, with reported 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 in Tennessee, emergency officials said.