More than 100 people are feared dead after a series of tornadoes ripped through several states in the Midwest and South and transformed homes and businesses into piles of rubble late Friday into Saturday.
In Kentucky alone, the death toll is at least 80 and is going to exceed 100, Gov. Andy Beshear told CNN on Sunday morning – making it the deadliest tornado event in the state’s history.
During a Sunday news conference, Beshear said 18 counties are reporting tornado-related damage. As of Sunday morning, between 36,000 – 50,000 individuals were without power, Beshear said.
“To the people of America, there is no lens big enough to show you the extent of the damage here in Graves County or in Kentucky,” the governor said.
In pictures: Deadly tornadoes hit central and southern US
Several state parks across Kentucky have been opened to help house families that have lost their homes, Beshear said.
“We are taking them in. We are trying to guarantee everyone a two-week stay so they’re not worried about tomorrow,” Beshear said. “They can worry about finding their relatives, making sure their kids have enough to eat.”
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Beshear confirmed a 3-year-old in Graves County and a 5-year-old in Muhlenberg County were among the dead.
“We’re going to grieve together. We’re going to dig out and cleanup together, and we will rebuild and move forward together,” Beshear said during the news conference.
Beshear also announced that more than 300 National Guard troops are on duty across nine counties. More than 100 of them are stationed in Graves County, said Brig. Gen. Robert Larkin, who is a part of the Kentucky National Guard leadership team.
As a result of the catastrophic damage in Kentucky, federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency are also helping.
“Because housing, we know, is going to be such a tremendous need, we are sending in one of our housing experts that will be here tomorrow to begin the strategy for how we’re going to be able to help with the long-term housing needs and the recovery of these communities,” said Deanne Criswell, FEMA administrator.
Criswell also indicated Beshear requested a major federal disaster declaration from the federal government. President Joe Biden’s administration approved a disaster declaration on Saturday, but a major disaster declaration would allow for even more federal resources and funds to the affected areas.
Tornadoes and storms wreak havoc across Midwest and South
Arkansas officials have reported two weather-related deaths; Tennessee has confirmed four; Illinois has reported six; and Missouri two. Though Beshear said the death toll in Kentucky was at least 80, the state has not released an official number.
Across the region, destroyed buildings, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets in hard-hit areas, making it tougher for rescuers trying to reach communities left with no working phone or power lines. More than 50,000 customers in Kentucky were without power as of Sunday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.US.
At least 50 tornadoes were reported across eight states, according to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. CNN meteorologists said a stretch of more than 250 miles from Arkansas to Kentucky might have been hit by one violent, long-track twister.
As of Sunday, five EF-3 tornadoes were identified in the following localities: Defiance, Missouri; Edwardsville, Illinois; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Saloma, Kentucky and in Kentucky between Cayce and Beaver Creek, an area that includes the devastated town of Mayfield.
According Criswell, the FEMA administrator, the severe storms are the “new normal” in an era of climate change.
“The effects we are seeing of climate change are the crisis of our generation,” Criswell said. “We’re taking a lot of efforts at FEMA to work with communities to help reduce the impacts that we’re seeing from these severe weather events and help to develop systemwide projects that can help protect communities.”
Despite her assertion, scientific research on climate change’s influence on tornadoes is not as robust as for other types of extreme weather like droughts, floods and even hurricanes. The short and small scale of tornadoes, along with an extremely spotty and unreliable historical record for them, makes assessing their relationships to long-term, human-caused climate change very difficult.
Candle factory collapse in Kentucky
In Mayfield, Kentucky, a city of around 10,000 people, the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory collapsed into a massive pile of debris, and rescuers used their hands and machines to dig through the destruction.
“There’s at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there. It will be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it,” Beshear said. “Downtown is completely devastated.”
Eight people died at the candle factory and eight others are unaccounted for as of Sunday night, company spokesperson Bob Ferguson told CNN on Sunday.
“We know for sure that more than 90 employees escaped with their lives on the night of the tornadoes,” Ferguson said.
Troy Propes, CEO of the company that owns the factory, said he believed workers there followed the proper tornado safety protocols.
“Our factory was built as a manufacturing facility and the concrete walls and the steel frame and the structure,” he said. “You would have thought it would have been one of the safest places but ironically, as you can see with this devastation, there wasn’t anything safe about this storm.”
“I think hindsight is always an incredible lens to look through but I think everybody made the best decisions and the right decisions with the information that they had,” he added.
Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan told CNN’s Pamela Brown she heard that the number of actual casualties at the candle factory is lower than was originally reported.
“In the days to come we will find that out – that quite possibly maybe only half of the casualties, but we can’t say that for sure,” she said.
There’s still a search-and-rescue effort going on at the factory, O’Nan said law enforcement officials told her, and that’s expected to last 10 days from when teams started going through the site. After that, she said, the mission will be changed to a recovery effort.
Some family members are still searching for relatives who worked inside.
Paige Tingle, who was looking for her mother-in-law, Jill Monroe, said time is of the essence. The last time the family spoke with her, she was in the bathroom in the safe shelter area,” Tingle said Saturday.
“She (Monroe) has lung problems, she has heart problems,” Tingle said. “We’ve got to get her.”
The family checked local hospitals but they haven’t found her. Calls to her phone have gone unanswered.
Ivy Williams was at the Mayfield site Saturday looking for his wife of 30-plus years, Janine Williams, who was at the factory.
“I hope she’s somewhere safe,” Williams said, through tears. “Please call me … I’m looking for you, baby.” He last heard from her before the tornado hit, and was shocked to find the building leveled when he arrived at the scene.
First responders have pulled people out of the rubble – some of them alive, storm chaser Michael Gordon told CNN Saturday from the scene.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about. … They’re digging in that rubble by hand right now,” Gordon said.
Power outages and road-blocking debris
Beshear visited some of the affected areas Saturday to assess the damage. In his father’s hometown of Dawson Springs, which has a population of about 2,700, some remain unaccounted for.
“One block from my grandparents’ house, there’s no house standing and we don’t know where all those people are,” Beshear said.
The death toll in Dawson Springs grew to 13 – up from 10 on Saturday – with two victims recovered Sunday, Hopkins County Coroner Dennis Mayfield said. The dead included two elderly sisters who lived together, as well as a husband and wife.
The fatalities range in age from 34-86, Mayfield said. The missing persons list is still more than 100, but he said officials believe most of those are people who left town and haven’t checked in yet.
As for those who lost homes, “hundreds and hundreds are displaced,” said Nick Bailey, the director of emergency management in Hopkins County.
“Almost an entire city has been displaced at this point,” Bailey said.
The state has deployed the National Guard to conduct searches, clear debris from roadways, and take generators to help power shelters and hospitals. The governor urged people in affected communities that still have power to stay off the roads.
“Let our first responders get to everybody. Don’t go to these areas to see it. We need to make sure those who do this work can do it at the fastest possible speed,” he said.
Kentucky State Police Lt. Dean Patterson said the destruction is unlike anything he’s seen before. And the rescue and recovery effort will come with challenges.
“It’s a very thorough and slow process, because you have to be careful when you are dealing with so much debris, and so many unknowns. One wrong move and you could actually cause more damage, so it’s a slow methodical process. Lots of people out there, working together to do everything they can to hopefully find some survivors in that devastating area.”
A hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, some 27 miles north of Mayfield, has been treating tornado victims, a spokesperson told CNN.
Tornadoes also caused destruction at the courthouse in Graves County, Kentucky, about 17 miles southwest of Mayfield. District Judge Brian Crick died during the storm, according to a statement from Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.
“This is shocking loss to his family, his community and the court system, and his family is in our prayers,” Minton’s statement reads.
National Weather Service Chief Meteorologist John Gordon told a news conference in Kentucky that the tornado event was a “worst-case scenario.”
“Warm air in the cold season, middle of the night – this sickens me to see what has happened,” he said. “Look at the pictures on your screens. Homes, totally impaled, two-by-fours through cars, eighteen-wheelers thrown 30 feet moved in the northwesterly direction – that takes a lot of force.”
Deaths in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee
In addition to Kentucky, deadly destruction was also reported in Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
At least six people died at the collapsed Amazon warehouse in the Illinois city of Edwardsville, Fire Chief James Whiteford said. The recovery phase is expected to take three more days and first responders will continue to search the site for evidence of life, he said.
The six dead ranged in age from 26 to 62, the Edwardsville Police Department said.
One of the victims was identified as Clayton Cope, a 29-year-old US Navy veteran. He had worked for Amazon for just over a year as a maintenance mechanic, his mother, Carla Cope, said. His father also worked at the facility in the same position.
“Had (Clay) not been there, my husband would have,” she said.
An Amazon representative said a tornado warning siren sounded 11 minutes before the storm’s arrival.
“Managers were on the loudspeakers telling people to get to the shelter-in-place area. They were also being guided by other managers and other employees who were trying to get everybody to that safe location,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNN affiliate KSDK on Sunday.
She said employees sheltered in two unspecified safe areas. Nantel said dispatchers also contacted Amazon delivery drivers in the area and told them to shelter in place.
In the northeastern Arkansas city of Monette, at least one person was killed at a nursing home damaged by a tornado, Mayor Bob Blankenship said.
A second person died after the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, officials said. That person was identified Sunday as store assistant manager June Pennington of Mississippi County, Arkansas, according to county spokesman Tom Henry.
“At this point, I have two confirmed deaths. One is in Monette at the nursing home and the other one was in Leachville at a store that was struck in deadly fashion,” Hutchinson told CNN.
“As I went to that facility, it was like heaven sucked up the roof and all the contents of it. And it’s just a miracle with 67 residents that we only lost one there. And that’s because of the heroic efforts by the staff and also the fact that we had 20 minutes of warning,” he said.
Officials confirmed two storm-related deaths in Missouri, including a woman killed at home in St. Charles County and a young child killed at home in Pemiscot County, the governor said.
Tennessee is reporting a total of four weather-related deaths from the severe weather that hit the state overnight.
CNN’s Keith Allen, Dave Alsup, Mark Biello, Haley Brink, Travis Caldwell, Kevin Conlon, Carma Hassan, Dave Hennen, DJ Judd, Gregory Lemos, Eric Levenson, Brandon Miller, Paul P. Murphy, Sharif Paget, Nadia Romero, Andy Rose, Laura Studley and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.