Dozens of people were feared to die, and communities in the Midwest and South were digging through the rubble Saturday after a series of unusually powerful storms and tornadoes struck six states overnight.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at least 70 had died and the state’s death toll could rise to more than 100. The state was hit by four tornadoes, he said, including one that remained on the ground for more than 200. miles. .
In Mayfield, Ky., About 110 people had huddled inside a candle factory when a tornado swept through it. About 40 people were rescued, but Beshear said he believed “dozens” had died there. At a news conference Saturday, shocked local officials said they were struggling to clear debris amid blocked roads and loss of water and power.
“This has been the most devastating tornado in our state’s history,” Beshear said at the briefing. “The level of devastation is unlike anything I have seen.”
Other states were also hit hard. Authorities said at least six people had died in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois, four had died in Tennessee and two had died in Arkansas.
The storms, dark and immense funnel-shaped clouds that roared through the nightscape, razed houses, churches and businesses, set buildings ablaze and knocked a train with 28 empty cars off its tracks, leaving scenes of supernatural destruction.
In Mayfield, one of the hardest hit communities, the city center had become a dangerous maze of downed power lines, dangling tree branches and strewn debris. Jesse Perry, an executive judge in Graves County, which includes Mayfield, said local officials were “in the trenches, trying to find people.”
“We need your prayers,” he said, his voice cracking at a news conference on Saturday. “We need your help.”
President Biden said he had approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky, allowing federal resources to flow into the state.
“We’re going to get over this, and we’re going to get over this together,” Biden told a news conference. “The federal government is not going away.”
In Arkansas, a 94-year-old man was killed and five people were injured when a tornado demolished the Monette Manor nursing home, said Monette Mayor Bob Blankenship.
Mandi Sanders, who works at the home, said staff members helped residents cover their heads with pillows to protect them from glass and flying debris before the walls collapsed and parts of the roof collapsed.
“It was like a roaring train,” he said. “I didn’t think it would ever end.”
One person also died at a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Ark., Governor Asa Hutchinson said.
“Probably the most remarkable thing is that there is no greater loss of life,” Hutchinson told a news conference.
Scientists are unsure whether there is a link between climate change and the frequency or strength of tornadoes, in part due to a paucity of data. But researchers say that in recent years tornadoes appear to be occurring in large “clusters” and that a so-called tornado alley in the Great Plains, where most tornadoes occur, appears to be moving east.
At least six states – Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee – were hit by tornadoes Friday night, according to reports from the National Weather Service.
The tornadoes were part of a weather system that was wreaking havoc in many parts of the country, causing substantial snowfall in parts of the upper Midwest and western Great Lakes, said Bill Bunting, chief of operations for the Storm Prediction Center.
The Edwardsville Police Department in Illinois said early Saturday that the storms had caused “catastrophic damage to a significant portion” of an Amazon warehouse. Six people were killed and 45 people were confirmed to have escaped the building, James Whiteford, the fire marshal, said at a news conference Saturday night.
“Earlier this afternoon, the response portion to this incident came to an end, and we are now focused solely on recovery,” said Chief Whiteford. Authorities will continue to search for people for the next three days during daylight hours, he said.
To complicate rescue efforts, there were thousands of power outages across the region. About 77,000 customers in Kentucky and 53,000 customers in Tennessee were without power Saturday night, according to PowerOutage.us.