Reeling from deadly tornadoes, Middle Tennessee confirms its 1st case of coronavirus

(COOKVILLE, Tenn.) — As the recovery effort gets underway from a series of deadly twisters that ripped through Middle Tennessee, authorities announced on Thursday the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the devastated region.

In a double dose of adversity, the COVID-19 case was confirmed in Williamson County, just southeast of Nashville, according to Dr. Michael Caldwell, director of the Nashville Department of Public Health.

In spite of the city’s emergency shelters being full of people displaced by the tornadoes, Caldwell said anyone feeling ill should stay away from crowds, and he encouraged residents to be “respectfully aggressive” with people who are coughing and sneezing so “that sick people don’t be around non-sick people.”

While calling for solidarity in the face of the crippling storm damage, Caldwell cautioned local residents that “it’s time that we stop shaking hands.”

At least 25 people were killed when multiple tornadoes ripped through Putnam County and communities closer to Nashville early Tuesday morning. At least three people remained unaccounted for as of Thursday morning.

Authorities said at least 18 people in Putnam County, including a young couple and their 2-year-old son, were killed.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday night that a tornado that slammed Putnam County was rated as a violent EF-4 with top winds of 175 mph. It was the strongest tornado to hit central Tennessee since 2009.

Another ferocious funnel cloud that cut a 52-mile swath of destruction through the city of Nashville and Davidson, Wilson and Smith counties was rated as an EF-3 with top winds at 165 mph, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a news conference Thursday.

An initial damage assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency along the path of the tornado is just 75% complete but has already tallied 385 residential structures and another 184 commercial structures that sustained “major damage or were completely destroyed,” Cooper said.

The twister that hit Nashville broke 673 power poles and that 79 roads in the city remained closed Thursday due to downed power lines and debris, according to the mayor.

About 18,900 customers remained without electricity on Thursday, down from 56,000 on Tuesday, Cooper said.

He said the powerful tornado followed the same path as a twister that killed 44 people in 1933 and one that killed 12 people and caused more than $133 million in damage in April 1998.

Adrienne Battle, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, said all classes have been canceled for the remainder of the week as officials assess the damage to school buildings. She said three schools in the city sustained significant damage, including one, the Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School, where an entire wing will likely have to be torn down and rebuilt.

Lt. David Dillon of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said the damage from the tornado was so great that first responders at times didn’t know what they were looking at.

While searching for people still unaccounted for in Putnam County, Dillon said he peered into a flattened home on Thursday morning and couldn’t figure out if he was looking at what was once a bedroom or a kitchen. The dented metal door of a stove lay just feet from him, but a pillow amidst the splinted wood, cracked cinder blocks and busted furniture suggested he was looking at a bedroom.

“It’s hard to tell what was where,” Dillon told an ABC News crew as he searched the rubble.

Surveying the heavily damaged residential neighborhood in Cookeville, about 80 miles east of Nashville, Dillon described how hard the search has been for him and his team.

“Just the total destruction,” Dillon said. “I mean, it’s digging through the piles of rubble to try to help people. It’s not just missing roofs or shingles or windows, it’s total devastation everywhere you look.”

President Donald Trump is scheduled to get an up-close look on Friday when he visits Nashville and Middle Tennessee, Cooper said.

On Wednesday night, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive emergency order and made a request to Trump for emergency federal funds.

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