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Tenn. Gov. Lee tours 2nd round of tornado damage within weeks

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Gov. Bill Lee
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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Homeowners continued to sift through battered neighborhoods in southeastern Tennessee on Tuesday, still reeling from a tornado that killed three people, injured dozens and destroyed more than 100 buildings only hours after families went to sleep after Easter Sunday.

“I want the people in this region to know that the hearts and thoughts and prayers of thousands of Tennesseans are with you. This has been a devastating strike,” said Gov. Bill Lee, who traveled to the hardest-hit areas in Chattanooga on Tuesday.

It was the second time in little more than a month the Republican governor was out surveying damage caused by tornadoes that had ripped across the Volunteer State in the middle of the night.

"Once again, we’re challenged with a tragedy and a difficulty, but we're prepared for that challenge," Lee said.

Emergency officials face a new challenge now. As they respond to a natural disaster, they must follow safety measures for the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, Lee wore a mask while out talking to families who had lost homes in the tornado. Flanked by local, state and congressional officials also wearing protective equipment, Lee didn't reach out to comfort people with a handshake or hug.

Storms that killed more than 30 people in the Southeast, piling fresh misery atop a pandemic, leaving more than 1 million homes and businesses without power amid floods and mudslides. (April 14)

Instead, he bumped elbows, acknowledging the move wasn't the normal greeting in a time of crisis but was needed while social distancing guidelines remain in place.

One family told the governor that they had just seconds to seek shelter in their bathroom after learning the tornado had touched down.

“It sounded like the house was falling apart,” said Kendall Falana, who was with wife and two young kids. Falana said he was alerted to take cover by watching local TV news.

Parts of Falana's roof had been cleanly peeled off and the windows blown out. But he said he remained thankful his family was safe.

Meanwhile, shingles, insulation and other debris were splattered across cars and mailboxes. Cars with broken windshields sat in uprooted driveways.

“We need money! We need that stimulus check now!” a person in a passing pickup truck yelled to Lee as the governor visited with people cleaning around their home.

Despite the carnage caused by the Easter storm, top officials marveled that the death count remained much lower compared to the March tornadoes that ultimately killed 25.

“It’s kind of hard to believe there was just two deaths,” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke told Lee.

“It’s a remarkably low number,” said Patrick Sheehan, commissioner of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Outside Tennessee, the storms that erupted on Easter claimed lives in at least five other states, and the National Weather Service said preliminary assessments found evidence of at least 27 twisters. The strongest confirmed so far was an EF-4 tornado that devastated southeastern Mississippi with winds as strong as 170 mph (273 kph).