NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sirens screamed. Emergency weather alerts buzzed cellphones. News crews pleaded with people to seek cover.
In the aftermath of the massive tornadoes that ripped through Tennessee early Tuesday morning, emergency officials say they believe the systems in place to warn people worked properly. But they noted that they have no way of knowing how many people received a heads-up before the storm struck with deadly ferocity.
No reports have emerged of systems failing to get information to people in the storm's path as quickly as possible. The first tornado began its more than 50-mile (80-kilometer) trail of destruction well after midnight, when most people were in bed. After the second tornado exploded through communities further east of Nashville, 24 people were dead and many more injured.
“When the phone alert went off, it just buzzed. I saw it because I was awake but had I been asleep? I likely would have missed it,” said Angela Lese Gregory, a former meteorologist with the National Weather Service who lives in a neighborhood a few miles from downtown Nashville.
Gregory, now a full-time musician, said she spent all night Tuesday watching the weather and posting warnings on Facebook urging people to prepare for the worst.
“I had a friend post that he didn't think it was going to be that bad. He ended up losing his house,” Gregory said.
The former meteorologist said too many people rely on one type of warning system. Sirens are useful, she said, but they are not meant to be heard indoors and aren't helpful to people with hearing loss. Cellphones have become more vital for alerts, yet some people turn them off at night.
From her standpoint, the best tool is to invest in a weather radio issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration because it acts like an in-house siren that's not reliant on a cellphone carrier.
“We’re all devastated and we’re all frustrated from a meteorologist standpoint,” Gregory said. “No one wants to see this kind of stuff happen."
In Tennessee, tornado sirens are controlled by local governments. Davidson County, home to Nashville, has nearly 100 installed. The county sets them all off three minutes at a time during tornado warnings and possible sightings.
“The system that we currently have, it worked,” Nashville fire Chief William Swann said. “It worked exactly the way it should. And we’re very happy with that. We had no indications of any sirens that did not work.”
To warn of extreme weather, the National Weather Service sends out wireless emergency alerts through a text message.
“I have not heard problems surface yet, but I’m sure over the next several days we’ll hear how effective all the devices were,” said Patrick Sheehan, director of Tennessee's Emergency Management Agency. “Right now as we understand it, the National Weather Service was issuing warnings as they were appropriate.”
Sheehan acknowledged, however, that people can opt out of the alerts.
Because no system is in place to track it, there's no way to know how many people received a text alert. The Associated Press asked various cellphone carriers how many alerts they pushed out for the weather service. As of Thursday, only Sprint and Verizon had responded confirming alerts went out but did not give a specific number.
“There is no central mechanism collecting information on the number of phones across all wireless carriers that received the tornado warning transmissions,” said Jasmine Blackwell, a spokeswoman for the weather service.
The storm claimed its first victim in Benton County, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Nashville. The first tornado formed at 12:32 a.m. on the western edge of Nashville and crossed through three counties, according to the weather service, hitting EF-3 intensity three times over its 53-mile (85-kilometer) course. An EF-3 tornado is categorized as “severe,” with winds up to 165 mph (266 kph).
Nashville was hit hardest in the Five Points neighborhood of trendy East Nashville, where two people were killed.
The predominantly African American neighborhoods of North Nashville and the trendy Germantown area also suffered major damage. The tornado hit EF-3 intensity a second time east of downtown in the Donelson area and a third time in Wilson County near the city of Mt. Juliet, where three more people died.
It finally petered out in Smith County nearly an hour later before forming the second, worse tornado in Putnam — which caused 18 deaths.
The weather service said that was an EF-4 tornado, categorized as “extreme” with winds between 166 and 200 mph (267-321 kph). Local officials have said it was on the ground for about 2 miles (3 kilometers). Crews continued to survey the damage Thursday.
So far, officials have identified 395 residential structures and 184 commercial structures that took major damage or were completely destroyed in metro Nashville, Mayor John Cooper said at a news conference Thursday. Cooper said more than 18,000 customers were without power in metro Nashville.
Over in Putnam County, officials said the last person on their missing person list had been located.
Reporters Travis Loller and Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville.