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Tornadoes kill at least 24 in Tennessee as Nashville sees "stunning" damage

At least 19 people killed in Tennessee tornadoes

Tornadoes touched down across Tennessee on Tuesday, killing at least 24 people and leaving an undetermined number missing, according to authorities. Tennessee was under a state of emergency. 

The death toll was nine Tuesday morning but jumped to 25 by the early evening, as bodies were recovered from fallen buildings, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. The number was then lowered to 24.

A majority of the deaths occurred in Putnam County, east of Nashville. County mayor Randy Porter said at a press conference Wednesday that 18 people were killed in the county, including five children under the age of 13. He said no additional victims were found overnight.

People are still missing across the state. Eighty-eight people were missing in Putnam County as of Tuesday evening, but that number dropped to 22 by Wednesday morning, according to officials. 

Search and rescue for the remaining missing will continue on Wednesday. 

"[Monday night was] a reminder of how fragile life is," Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a news conference.

The National Guard was deployed, mainly in Putnam County, and officials said there were 12,000 guardsmen available for further deployment throughout the state.

The devastation came overnight on the day Tennessee participated in the Super Tuesday presidential primary when more than 30% of all delegates were up for grabs. Officials said at a press conference Tuesday that the tornadoes damaged 15 out of 169 polling places

Just hours before voting was set to begin, the state's election commission created alternative places for people assigned to the damaged polling locations to vote. Officials encouraged residents to check whether their polling place was affected. 

The tornadoes destroyed at least 48 buildings and left about 50,000 customers without power, according to officials. One tornado ripped through downtown Nashville and hit the city's CBS affiliate, WTVF directly. 

The tornadoes caused significant damage because of their strength. The National Weather Service estimated that a tornado that hit the city Mount Juliet and Donelson, Tennessee, was "at least" an EF-3, which indicates a "severe" tornado caused by 136 to 165 mile an hour winds.

"In order to collapse buildings, as this did, it had to be an EF-3 or an EF-4," said CBS News Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli. 

According to Berardelli, the tornadoes' severity was caused by the collision of strong winds of 150 miles per hour coming from the west at the upper levels of the atmosphere — near 30,000 feet up — with much weaker winds on the ground level pushing up from the south. 

Why the Tennessee tornadoes were so damaging

In addition to the upper-level jet stream, there was an associated low-level jet stream carrying hurricane-force winds — 75 miles per hour — also coming from the west. According to Berardelli, while the triple-digit wind in the upper jet stream contributed to the tornado, the westward wind at the lower level was likely the bigger assist.

"So you literally have a 90-degree angle in the atmosphere: Winds at the surface blowing from the south, winds at the upper atmosphere blowing directly from the west," he said.

The difference in wind speed and direction from the upper levels to the ground created something called "wind shear." Wind shear puts a "spin" on the atmosphere and clouds which pass through it. That spinning motion whips up supercell thunderstorms and drops tornadoes. 

"When you have a jet stream of 150 to 170 miles an hour aloft, these storms will bring that wind smack right down to the ground, and that's what happened," Berardelli said.

A video posted online from east Nashville showed what appeared to be a well-defined funnel 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.

The city's emergency operations center has been activated, and an emergency shelter is set up. Residents have been urged to stay off the roads in order to avoid downed power lines, as some 74,000 homes and businesses were without electricity.

Schools have been closed for the day but a majority of the polling stations for the Super Tuesday primary are staying open.

The tornado that hit downtown Nashville reportedly stayed on the ground into Hermitage, a neighborhood about 10 miles east. The city's historic Germantown neighborhood suffered significant damage. 

APTOPIX Severe Weather Tennessee
A man looks over buildings destroyed by storms Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.  Mark Humphrey / AP

WTVF called that damage in the Nashville area "stunning." Nashville Mayor John Cooper wrote on Twitter that the "community has been devastated."

"Nashville is hurting," he wrote. "... 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."

Parts of Tennessee State University's campus were damaged by a tornado, but the school is on spring break.  

A reported gas leak forced an evacuation of the IMT building in Germantown, according to WSMV-TV. Photos showed dozens of people in the street carrying their belongings not long after the tornado moved through the city. 

Governor Lee said on Twitter that the state "has activated a strong coordinated response effort to last night's devastating storms."

"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."

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