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Tornado east of Nashville on Tuesday was nation’s most intense in nearly three years

The Cookeville tornado was rated EF-4 and was blamed for 18 of the 24 deaths in Middle Tennessee.

Eric Johnson stands near the foundation of his home, destroyed by a tornado, on Wednesday in Cookeville, Tenn. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Two days after violent tornadoes laid siege to a large swath of Middle Tennessee, National Weather Service storm surveys are offering new details on their path and intensity. The staggering twisters achieved rare feats of strength and longevity during their devastating overnight assault Tuesday.

The death toll from the tornadoes stands at 24, with no new fatalities reported since Wednesday. CNN reports that at least five children were killed, and the victims ranged in age from 2 to 67.

Gov. Bill Lee announced early Thursday that the missing had been accounted for.

Eighteen people were killed when an EF-4 tornado struck Cookeville in Putnam County, 80 miles east of Nashville. It was the first “violent” tornado (rated EF-4 or higher on the enhanced Fujita scale) in the National Weather Service Nashville’s forecast area since April 10, 2009.

It was also the strongest-rated tornado nationwide in nearly three years.

The tornadoes all occurred within the same family, originating in a lone supercell thunderstorm that tracked more than 275 miles across the state. Reports of tornadoes and damage emerged at 11:07 p.m. to the west in Benton County on Monday, when the storm was at least 90 minutes away from Nashville. That storm produced an EF-2 tornado that killed one person in Camden.

The same storm, which was unusually compact but fierce, approached the state capital shortly after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, where it spawned a larger tornado.

The Nashville tornado

The tornado that hit Nashville was rated a strong EF-3 with maximum winds estimated at 165 mph. It’s worth noting that is 1 mph shy of the threshold for EF-4, highlighting the storm’s formidable strength.

Based on preliminary estimates, the twister’s 53.4-mile path would rank among the top six among tornadoes observed in Tennessee. According to records from the Tornado History Project, only one tornado has covered more ground in Tennessee — which occurred April 16, 1998, and was nearly 70 miles long.

The Nashville tornado touched down sometime between 12:30 and 12:33 a.m. west of the city and quickly began carving a path of damage as it plowed east. John C. Tune Airport suffered incredible damage, estimated at more than $90 million, not including aircraft.

Over the next hour, the tornado ravaged sections of Davidson, Wilson and Smith counties. Weaving its way through the heart of Nashville, the tornado “rapidly intensified” to EF-3 strength as it ripped up eastern sections of the city. Two fatalities occurred in the Five Points neighborhood.

The tornado caused EF-1 and EF-2 damage before intensifying again to EF-3 force as it leveled structures near the Stanford Estates subdivision in Donelson. The National Weather Service found that the tornado caused primarily EF-2 damage over much of the community of Hermitage and the remainder of Davidson County.

Remarkably, EF-3 damage again was found near Mt. Juliet, where three deaths occurred.

The tornado largely paralleled Interstate 40 to the north, crossing it occasionally south and southwest of Lebanon before disappearing west of Gordonsville.

Based on radar data, the tornado looks to have lifted between 1:30 and 1:35 a.m., meaning the funnel was in contact with the ground for about an hour. In addition, its forward speed approached 50 mph as it raced east.

The Cookeville tornadoes

A more calamitous tornado emerged from the same supercell thunderstorm as it drifted into Putnam County. After a brief pause in the fury, the rotating thunderstorm produced another tornado that resulted in devastating damage in Cookeville.

The tornado appears to have touched down around 1:52 or 1:53 a.m., rapidly intensifying as it roughly moved down Route 70N into Cookeville. It engulfed the city at 1:57 a.m.

Meanwhile, a second tornado may have developed to the southwest, causing additional damage southeast of Baxter several miles south of Interstate 40. Doppler radar revealed an additional plume of debris lofted by an apparent vortex. There has been no word on this likelihood as of yet from the National Weather Service.

The Weather Service rated the main Cookeville tornado as an EF-4 with 175 mph winds. That appears to be the strongest tornado nationwide since the Canton, Tex., twin EF-4 tornadoes of April 29, 2017. Those tornadoes killed five people and featured winds up to 180 mph.

Meteorologists will continue to survey the damage from Tuesday’s storms and release more information in the coming days. In the meantime, recovery and cleanup efforts may be hampered by isolated showers late Thursday before temperatures plummet into the upper 20s on Friday night.