The death toll mounted Sunday from an unseasonal string of U.S. tornadoes that swept through six southern and midwestern states late Friday even as one emergency official expressed hope that more survivors would be found.
The destruction was the worst in the state of Kentucky, with the death toll already at 80. Many of the deaths occurred when a twister leveled a candle factory.
The violent tornadoes, unusual in December in the United States, tore a 365-kilometer path through Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky, but the destruction stretched through 321 kilometers in Kentucky.
“I know we’ve lost more than 80 Kentuckians,” Governor Andy Beshear told CNN’s “State of the Union” show. “That number is going to exceed more than 100. This is the deadliest tornado event we’ve ever had.”
Beshear said it will “be a miracle if we pull anyone more out” of the candle factory debris in the small Kentucky town of Mayfield. He said only 40 of the 110 people working at the factory have been rescued.
“I’m not sure we’re going to see another rescue,” he said. “We’ve been hit in a way we couldn’t imagine.”
But Deanne Criswell, chief of the country’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN that rescue efforts are continuing.
“I think there is still hope … to find as many people as we can,” she said. Criswell called the December storms “incredibly unusual” as they are much more common in the early spring months in the Northern Hemisphere, in March and April.
Jeremy Creason, the Mayfield fire chief and emergency medical services director, said, “We had to, at times, crawl over casualties to get to live victims.”
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said Saturday that six people were killed when a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in the middle of a shift change Friday night, causing the building to collapse. Because of the shift change, authorities do not know if anyone is still unaccounted for.
“This is a devastating tragedy for our Amazon family and our focus is on supporting our employees and partners,” Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said in a written statement.
U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken to the governors of the affected states and approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky, allowing the use of federal funds there, with funding requests pending elsewhere.
Biden tweeted Saturday that he was briefed on the situations and said his administration is “working with governors to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.”
According to early reports, the tornado raced across Kentucky for about 320 kilometers. But Victor Genzini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University, said it may have been on the ground for 400 kilometers. The longest twister on record tracked for about 355 kilometers across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in March 1925
The tornado in Mayfield was one of at least four that devastated at least 10 counties in Kentucky.
“It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” one of the Mayfield factory workers, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, told NBC’s Today show. “I did not think I was going to make it,” she said.
Storms also swept through the Kentucky city of Bowling Green, killing an off-campus Western Kentucky University student, according to the school’s president, Timothy Caboni.
Eleven of Kentucky’s confirmed deaths were from Bowling Green.
In neighboring Tennessee, at least four people were killed as storms traversed the state, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Chief of Staff Alex Pellom.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s office said at least two people were killed in the towns of Defiance and New Melle and more were injured in building collapses. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or damaged, according to initial assessments.
A tornado also hit a nursing home in Monette in northern Arkansas, killing one person and trapping 20 people inside as the building collapsed, according to Craighead County Judge Marvin Day. He said five people sustained serious injuries and a few received minor ones.
Day said first responders rescued those trapped in the building that was “pretty much destroyed.”
Another person died when the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said.
“Probably the most remarkable thing is that there’s not a greater loss of life,” Hutchinson said after touring the wreckage of the nursing home. “It is catastrophic. It’s a total destruction.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.