Nashville residents walked around in dismay as emergency crews closed off roads. Roofs had been torn off apartment buildings, large trees had been uprooted and debris littered many of the footpaths.
The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms that caused damage across Tennessee. The region is familiar with outbreaks of tornadoes arriving this time of year, with deadly storms in 1933, 1998 and 2008.
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 neighbourhoods, with restaurants, music venues, high-end apartment complexes and rising home prices threatening to drive out long-time residents.
One tornado near downtown reportedly stayed on the ground into Hermitage, about 16 kilometres east of the city. Other areas reporting extensive damage included Mt Juliet.
“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.”
Police officers and fire crews were responding to about 40 building collapses around the city, Metro Nashville police said.
John Tune Airport in West Nashville “sustained significant damage due to severe weather,” spokeswoman Kim Gerlock said. Several hangars have been destroyed and power lines are down, she said, adding that there are no reported injuries.
Gerlock asked that the public avoid the airport until further notice and that the Airport Authority has activated its Emergency Operations Centre to coordinate a response.
A video posted online from east Nashville showed what appeared to be a well-defined tornado moving quickly across the city. Lightning repeatedly flashed while much of the city was in the dark. The whir of the wind could be heard gusting after the tornado moved out of sight.
Images on social media showed extensive damage to buildings, mangled wires on downed power lines and structures that are now unrecognisable as the tornado had reduced them to rubble. One photo showed a white fence that had fallen on a car. Another showed the roof and walls gone from a building that still had what appeared to be boxes stacked on shelves.
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 polls in Davidson and Wilson counties were opening an hour late but still closing at 8pm eastern time.
A reported gas leak forced an evacuation of the IMT building in the Germantown community, according to WSMV-TV. Photos showed dozens of people in the street carrying their belongings not long after the tornado moved through the city.
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 sub-stations were damaged in the tornado. Power outages as of 4am were affecting more than 44,000 customers, the utility company said.
Metro Nashville Public Schools said its schools would be closed on Tuesday because of the tornado damage. Wilson County, just east of metro Nashville will close schools for the rest of the week. Election polling sites at schools were expected to remain open, as well as district offices, according to tweets from its official account.
Jeff Roberts of the Elections Commission said in a statement early on Tuesday that information about damage to polling stations is being collected as polls open for Super Tuesday. Any voter in Davidson County whose assigned precinct has been impacted may vote at the Election Commission Offices, the statement said. Polls open at various times, starting at 7am CST, depending on the county.
The storm system was forecast to bring an isolated tornado, damaging winds and large hail, news outlets reported. Heavy rain was expected to impact Gulf Coast states over the next several days, according to WTVF-TV.