A devastating swarm of tornadoes ripped through six U.S. states, killing more than 70 people in Kentucky and leaving a trail of destroyed homes and businesses along a path that stretched more than 200 miles, officials said Saturday.
The powerful twisters, which weather forecasters say are unusual in cooler months, demolished a candle factory and the fire and police stations in a small town in Kentucky, tore through a nursing home in neighboring Missouri, and killed at least two workers at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the collection of tornadoes was the most destructive in the state’s history. He said about 40 workers had been rescued at the candle factory in the city of Mayfield, which had about 110 people inside when it was reduced to a pile of rubble.
“The level of devastation is unlike anything that I have ever seen,” Beshear said at a press conference. “We were pretty sure that we would lose over 50 Kentuckians. I’m now certain that number is north of 70. It may, in fact, end up exceeding 100 before the day is done.”
Beshear said 189 National Guard personnel have been deployed to assist with the recovery. The rescue efforts will focus in large part on Mayfield, home to some 10,000 people in the southwestern corner of the state where it converges with Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
Video and photos posted on social media showed brick buildings in downtown Mayfield flattened, with parked cars nearly buried under debris. The steeple on the historic Graves County courthouse was toppled and the nearby First United Methodist Church partially collapsed.
Mayfield Fire Chief Jeremy Creason, whose own station was destroyed, said the candle factory was diminished to a “pile of bent metal and steel and machinery” and that responders had to at times “crawl over casualties to get to live victims.”
Paige Tingle said she drove four hours to the site in the hope of finding her 52-year-old mother, Jill Monroe, who was working at the factory and was last heard from at 9:30 p.m. local time.
“We don’t know how to feel, we are just trying to find her,” she said. “It’s a disaster here. My thoughts go out to everyone.”
The genesis of the tornado outbreak was a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a super cell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas. That storm moved from Arkansas and Missouri and into Tennessee and Kentucky.
Unusually high temperatures and humidity created the environment for such an extreme weather event at this time of year, said Victor Gensini, a professor in geographic and atmospheric sciences at Northern Illinois University.
“This is an historic, if not generational event,” Gensini said. “In December, we’re typically thinking of snowstorms, not tornadoes and not certainly tornadoes at night.”
President Joe Biden on Saturday directed that federal resources be surged to locations with the greatest need.
About 130 miles east of Mayfield in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Justin Shepherd said his coffee shop was spared the worst of the storm, which struck other businesses hard on the busy commercial strip just off the bypass to U.S. Highway 31 West.
“We’ve got some siding and roof damage here, but just across the road there’s a brewery that half of it is gone. It’s just totally gone, like a big bomb exploded or something.”
One person was killed and five seriously injured when a tornado tore through a nursing home with 90 beds in Monette, Arkansas, a small community near the border with Missouri, according to Craighead County Judge Marvin Day.
“We were very blessed that more people weren’t killed or injured in that. It could have been a whole lot worse,” Day told Reuters.
A few miles away in Leachville, Arkansas, a tornado destroyed a Dollar General Store, killing one person, and laid waste to much of the city’s downtown, said Lt. Chuck Brown of the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas.
“It really sounded like a train roaring through town.”
In Illinois, at least two workers were confirmed killed after an Amazon.com Inc warehouse collapsed in the town of Edwardsville, with the roof appearing to have been peeled back off the metal skeleton of the building.
In Tennessee, the severe weather killed at least three people, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Flener said two died in Lake County and one in Obion County, but did not have any information about the circumstances of the deaths.
Shortly after midnight, the weather caused a CSX Corp freight train to derail in western Kentucky, although no crew were injured, a company spokesperson said.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes touching down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
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