Updated Thursday at 10:45 a.m.
A pair of tornadoes tore through Coffee County on Tuesday night, snapping trees in half and toppling barns with winds as high as 105 mph. The National Weather Service ranked both Middle Tennessee twisters as EF-1 intensity. And the state has now counted three other tornadoes that touched down in East Tennessee, where two people were killed by a lightning strike.
While the EF-1 assessment is the lowest level of tornado, weather service meteorologist Faith Borden said the Tullahoma tornado was strong enough to cause damage and travel far: 8.5 miles.
“Eight miles is a hefty length tornado,” she said. “And 300 yards wide.”
The weather service said the touch down was west of Tullahoma, then the tornado crossed State Route 16 before causing damage in the Lakewood Golf, Country Club and Lake Tullahoma Estates neighborhoods.
In Manchester, a second tornado snapped trees, damaged outbuildings and shifted one log cabin home off of its foundation by about 8 feet. That storm traveled 3.5 miles and was 200 yards wide.
Tullahoma City Administrator Jody Baltz says several houses were damaged by trees. But in terms of fatalities, Coffee County was luckier than other parts of the state. No one was seriously injured.
“The biggest priority we have right now is restoring power,” Baltz said Wednesday.
Because of downed power lines, some parts of the county could be without power for a day or more, Baltz says.
Reports are continuing to come in from across the state as daylight reveals the damage done by overnight storms. Tornadoes were spotted in several areas with at least eight counties experiencing severe weather.
As many as 23 injuries have been reported in McMinn County, where authorities say the Deerfield Estates Community in Athens was hit hard. In Polk County near the Georgia border, state officials are confirming that a husband and wife were killed. Their identities have not been released. Several deaths were also reported in northern Alabama.
Marion County reports three injuries related to the storms with multiple collapsed structures. Downed trees and power lines are reported in Bedford, Bradley, Franklin, Sequatchie and Coffee counties.
Numerous thunderstorm and tornado warnings were issued Tuesday night as severe weather rumbled through after 9 p.m.
“It sounded like a freight train came through. I came outside and found most of the huge pine trees across the road in front of our house, laying in our front yard,” Gretchen Downs of Coffee County said Wednesday morning. “Thank the good Lord though that we’re all safe and structures can be replaced.”
A Coffee County road crew cleared the way out for Downs with chainsaws, which hummed throughout several hard-hit neighborhoods.
Chuck Lawson said he was working late when the storm hit and found a treacherous drive home, with many routes unpassable.
“I’ve got about six or seven ways I can get home. Well, I eliminated about 4 or 5 of those before I could,” Lawson said. “I’ve lived here going on 55 years and I’ve never seen anything like this in this town.”
Kim Parks said the community rallied to her family after their barn collapsed, with two horses trapped inside.
“And there was just such an outflow of people that came to see if they could help in any way,” she said. “But they got the horses out, they’re unharmed, there’s not a scratch on them.”
“Just thank God we’re all OK. I mean, that’s where the power is and just by the grace of God, it saved us.”
The city opened a shelter at Grace Baptist Church, as power outages lingered.
Storm Traveled Northeast
A trained storm spotter called in a tornado in the northeast portion of Tullahoma, said John Cohen with the National Weather Service.
“And he was looking north into the storm and he could see it,” Cohen says. “It was moving northeast toward Manchester.”
There were also sightings in Giles and Cumberland counties.
McMinn County Mayor John Gentry tells the Chattanooga Times Free Press that 20 people there were injured by the storms, including one woman who was struck by a falling tree.
WRCB-TV says Polk County’s Sheriff is calling his area, near the Georgia border, a “disaster zone.”
Several horses were endangered because of barns that collapsed during the storm. Kim Parks of Tullahoma says her son had to rescue a couple of theirs.
“After it had all passed, he went out to check on the horses and the barn was down and there were two horses trapped in the back part of the barn,” she says. “There’s not a scratch on them. They were a little upset and nervous, but they’re ok.”