'It hit so fast': Tornadoes rip through town killing at least 22 people

At least 22 people have been killed and 140 buildings shredded after tornadoes ripped through the US state of Tennessee.

Sirens and phone alerts sounded, but the twisters that struck on Tuesday about 2am local time moved so quickly that many people in their path could not flee to safer areas.

“It hit so fast, a lot of folks didn’t have time to take shelter,” Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter said. 

“Many of these folks were sleeping.”

This car was among the victims of a tornado's path of destruction in Nashville. Source: AAP

One twister wrecked homes and businesses across a 16km stretch of downtown Nashville. 

It smashed more than three dozen buildings, including destroying the bell tower and stained glass of a historic church.

Another tornado damaged more than 100 structures along a 3.2km.03 path of destruction in Putnam County, wiping some homes from their foundations and depositing the wreckage far away.

The tornado touches down in the dark. Source: Jackie Estep via WEHT

Daybreak revealed landscapes littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines and huge broken trees, making many city streets and rural roads impassable. Schools, courts, transit lines, an airport and the state Capitol were closed. 

More than a dozen polling stations were also damaged, forcing Super Tuesday voters to wait in long lines at alternative sites.

The death toll climbed steadily as first responders gingerly pulled apart wreckage.

An abandoned Nashville apartment building in the aftermath. Source: AAP

Sheriff Eddie Farris said only 30 per cent of the Putnam County disaster area had received a “hard check” by midday. 

“A lot of these homes had basements, and we’re hopeful there are still people down in there,” he said.

Nashville residents walked around in dismay on streets and sidewalks littered with debris, in neighbourhoods where missing walls and roofs left living rooms and kitchens exposed. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets and piles of rubble.

“It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state,” Governor Bill Lee said.

He ordered non-essential state workers to stay home and then boarded a helicopter to survey the damage.

The tornado caused damage to more than 140 buildings in Nashville. Source: AAP

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit the disaster area on Friday. 

“We send our love and our prayers of the nation to every family that was affected,” he said. 

“We will get there, and we will recover, and we will rebuild, and we will help them.”

The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms that stretched from Alabama into western Pennsylvania.

Sumant Joshi helps to clean up rubble at the East End United Methodist Church after it was heavily damaged by storms in Nashville.

In Nashville, the twister’s path was mostly north and east of the heart of downtown, sparing many of the city’s biggest tourism draws — the honky tonks of Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry House, the storied Ryman Auditorium and the convention centre.

Instead the storm tore through the largely African American area of Bordeaux as well as neighbourhoods transformed by a recent building boom. Germantown and East Nashville are two of the city’s trendiest hotspots, with restaurants, music venues, high-end apartment complexes and rising home prices threatening to drive out longtime residents.

Dozens of buildings have been destroyed. Source: AAP

Renovated church destroyed, people trapped

East Nashville resident Paula Wade said her dogs began barking as sirens went off.

“They knew what was coming,” she said. 

“Then we heard the roar ... something made me just sit straight up in bed, and something came through the window right above my head. If I hadn’t moved, I would’ve gotten a face full of glass.”

Then she looked across the street and saw the damage at East End United Methodist Church.

“It’s this beautiful Richardsonian Romanesque church. The bell tower is gone, the triptych window of Jesus the good shepherd that they just restored and put back up a few weeks ago is gone,” she said.

Dominique Hammond and her daughter Analise Hammond assess the destruction of their home in North Nashville. Source: Getty Images

The roof came crashing down on Ronald Baldwin and Harry Nahay in the bedroom of their one-storey brick home in East Nashville. 

“We couldn’t get out,” Mr Baldwin said. 

“And so I just kept kicking and kicking until we finally made a hole.”

The kitchen inside a tornado damaged apartment in Cookeville, Tennessee. Source: Getty Images

The roaring wind woke Evan and Carlie Peters, also in East Nashville, but they had no time to reach the relative safety of an interior bathroom.

“Within about 10 seconds, the house started shaking,” Carlie said. 

“I jumped on top of the ground. He jumped on top of me. The ceiling landed on top of him. We’re grateful to be alive.”

A man looks on at buildings destroyed in downtown Nashville. Source: Getty Images

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