UPDATE 3:45 P.M. WEDNESDAY: An EF-2 tornado touched down in McMinn County around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, injuring 20 people and causing damage to 30 structures.
One bright spot in the midst of the damage - a baby was born early Wednesday morning.
"In one of the hardest hit areas, at one of our hardest hit homes, a new child came into the world. A baby was born at the local hospital, and that family's house had been destroyed," McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon.
Gentry said the mother was thrown from the home in the storm and made it to the hospital safely. Mother and baby are doing well.
"So we had 20 injured and one brand new life" in McMinn County, Gentry said.
Of the 20 injured, three to four were transported to other hospitals for higher levels of care. The others have been released.
One firefighter was injured but is expected to be ok.
The National Weather Service said the tornado was an EF-2 with estimated wind speeds of 130 miles per hour. The tornado was about 200 yards wide, and covered a path of about 11-and-a-half miles, according to the NWS.
The tornado developed near the intersection of County Road 700 and 705. A covered walkway was destroyed on South Jackson Street. The most significant damage was along Old Athens Madisonville Road where there was "catastrophic damage" to a few mobile homes, the NWS said.
Red Cross shelters have been set up at Keith Memorial United Methodist Church, 600 W Madison Ave, Athens, and Polk County High School in Benton. The shelters also have clean-up kits for residents whose homes have been damaged.
Officials are asking people to stay away from storm-damaged areas, specifically County Roads 700, 439, 372, 422 and 451, as well as South Jackson Street, State Highway 30 and State Highway 307 in Athens.
McMinn County Fire Chief Scott Thompson said about 11 volunteer fire departments assisted in recovery efforts. A search and rescue team from the Chattanooga Fire Department also arrived Wednesday morning to assist.
"It's been a tough couple weeks for East Tennessee, but I can't think of any area in the country that can handle it any better. And if there's any part that's going to come back stronger, it will be this area," Gentry said.
NWS spokesperson Anthony Cavallucci said the worst area hit was the Deerfield Estates. The area is inaccessible even for NWS crews as of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Citing the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, WRCB reports two people died in a Polk County due to the storms. TEMA said a husband and wife were killed there, and two others were injured.
Twenty people in McMinn County were sent to the hospital. The extent of the injuries are not known at this time, but officials said EMS crews had transported 8 of the victims.
The McMinn County mayor is asking residents to reduce cell phone use in the area due to coverage issues.
Ivan Moskowitz, the owner of a shopping center located at 424 White Street in Athens, huddled in his basement at home when the storms went through. Around 1:30 a.m., he got word that his business had been hit.
The Save A Lot store he owns in that development was destroyed by the storm.
“We will rebuild and get going again,” Moskowitz said.
He is worried about his 30 employees, but he said he three other stores in the area and he we would try to move some of them to those locations.
The store opened in 1988.
“I just hate for all of us. All the people that suffered losses and hopefully the city can rebuild from this,” said Moskowitz.
Gino Presley worked at the Save A Lot for 25 years. He’s the manager now.
“It’s been the livelihood for me and my family ever since I got out of school,” he said. “It’s just an awful feeling seeing everything the way it is. And knowing that people’s out of work now. It’s holiday time.”
Jack Russell has worked for Moskowitz for 30 years.
“I’m thankful none of our employees and none of our shoppers were here. It could have been much worse. We’re blessed,” said Russell.
The Red Cross is staffing a shelter at Keith Memorial Methodist Church, located at 600 West Madison Avenue.
Viewer pictures from Athens showed scattered damage.
Strong storms rolled through East Tennessee Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning.
All tornado watches in East Tennessee have expired as of 11:15 a.m. ET Wednesday. The National Weather Service issued a number of tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in East Tennessee counties, which have since expired.
Citing law enforcement officials, the Associated Press reports the storms killed up to five people in Rosalie, Ala.
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Parts of East Tennessee have seen large hail and gusty winds.
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