Multiple tornadoes ripped through midwest and southern U.S. leading to at least 70 deaths across at least five states, according to Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
The tornadoes hit Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee late Friday and early Saturday. More than a dozen tornadoes were reported with the primary tornado traveling more than 320 kilometres, according to Beshear.
During his Saturday morning press conference, Beshear said it was the most devastating tornado event in Kentucky history and that the death toll could reach at least 100 people.
Earlier, Kentucky had reported at least 50 deaths.
“The level of devastation is unlike anything that I have ever seen,” Beshear said. “We were pretty sure that we would lose over 50 Kentuckians, I’m now certain that that number is north of 70. It may in fact end up exceeding 100 before the day is done.”
Rescue missions are underway in Kentucky and there is help coming from the federal government with 189 National Guard members being deployed as part of the emergency response.
In the western part of Kentucky, the small city of Mayfield was left devastated. Videos and photos on social media showed the destruction of downtown Mayfield with entire buildings left destroyed and debris covering the roads.
In the city, one of the largest casualty events happened at the local candle factory where officials confirmed 18 deaths by late morning Saturday.
President Joe Biden tweeted Saturday that his government would ensure all the states affected “have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.”
He said Saturday that he approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky to accelerate federal aid in addition to the response from state and local authorities, and that he will ask Congress for “whatever is needed” in the recovery efforts.
Biden also said it is too early to tell whether climate change was a factor in the storms but he will ask the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate that matter.
The U.S.’s Storm Prediction Center had warned earlier Friday at least 17 million people in the region were at risk of severe weather, including tornadoes, as a system sweeps through the region overnight.
A super cell storm formed in northeast Arkansas and moved to Missouri, then Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Unfortunately it produced a couple of deadly tornadoes along the way. One of them may have been a long-track tornado,” Storm Prediction Center meteorologist Roger Edward said.
“The killer tornado was part of that.”
The center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes touching down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, and Mississippi.
In Arkansas, one person was killed and five more seriously injured after a tornado damaged the Monette Manor Nursing Home in the small city of Monette. At least 20 others were trapped inside the building, which houses 86 beds, officials told local media.
Craighead County Judge Marvin Day had originally reported two deaths but later corrected the death toll after further investigation.
“It looks like it’s pretty much destroyed,” Day told the Associated Press when asked about the building’s condition.
“It happens quick but apparently there was a little bit of time with tornado sirens going off.” Some residents were found in the basement “and were prepared for this,” he said.
Staff at the local news station, Region 8 News in nearby Jonesboro, Ark., were soon forced to seek shelter as the storm hit nearby.
Day said another nursing home in Truman — just south of Monette — was badly damaged but no injuries were reported. The residents were evacuated because the building was deemed unsafe.
Reports also said the local fire department had been damaged.
In Leachville, Arkansas, a tornado destroyed much of the city’s downtown, including a Dollar General Store that resulted in one death.
“It really sounded like a train roaring through town,” said Lt. Chuck Brown of the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas.
In rural St. Charles County, Missouri, one person died and two others were injured when buildings collapsed near the town of Defiance. The National Weather Service office in suburban St. Louis confirmed the death, but no further information was immediately available.
In Edwardsville, Ill., just outside St. Louis, at least six people died at an Amazon distribution centre whose roof had partially collapsed, fire chief James Whiteford said Saturday, while 45 people had made it out safe.
About 50 workers were believed to be at the warehouse when the storm hit Friday evening, authorities said, but the number is difficult to pinpoint as there is no set number of staff. Whiteford said recovery efforts would last more than three days.
A photo in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed a large portion of the wall and roof of the massive Amazon warehouse completely collapsed.
“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.
Workers at the weather service office themselves had to take shelter as another tornado passed near their office in Weldon Spring, Mo., west of St. Louis. That twister was suspected of destroying several homes in the Missouri towns of New Melle and Defiance, leaving at least three people injured, one of them hospitalized with serious injuries. Rescue crews worked into the night sifting through damage to make sure there were no additional injuries.
The collapse came as a strong thunderstorm, and possibly a tornado, ripped through the St. Louis area. Winds of up to 110 kph were reported in parts of St. Charles and St. Louis counties in Missouri. At least three St. Charles County residents were hospitalized and several homes in the area near Augusta, Missouri, were damaged.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on Twitter Friday that Illinois State Police and disaster officials were coordinating with local officials in Edwardsville, and he was monitoring the situation.
“My prayers are with the people of Edwardsville tonight, and I’ve reached out to the mayor to provide any needed state resources,” Pritzker said.
There were also reports of damaged structures and several injuries in Samburg, which sits in the top northwest corner of Tennessee. The fire station there was reportedly among the buildings damaged.
In Kentucky, reports emerged of workers trapped inside a candle factory in Mayfield, while the city’s Main Street reportedly took “a direct hit.”
Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said there was a shift happening inside the candle factory when the storm hit.
“The entire building is essentially leveled,” she said.
Burgess said search and rescue teams are still going through the rubble, which could take a day to sift through, and don’t yet have a number for how many have died.
“We just can’t confirm a number right now because we are still out there working, and we have so many agencies involved in helping us.”
Mayfield’s main fire station and emergency services hub were also hit by the tornado, complicating rescue efforts, fire chief and EMS director Jeremy Creason said.
“We have been working tirelessly through the night,” he said. “We had to at times crawl over casualties to get to live victims to get them out.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency due to “major tornado damage in multiple Western Kentucky counties.”
Photos posted to social media from Mayfield showed uprooted trees, a courthouse steeple sheered off and business windows blown out in the storms.
The National Weather Service had issued a “level four” risk for severe weather for Friday night into Saturday morning — one level below the maximum rating.
A level four warning suggests a few tornadoes, strong wind and isolated incidences of severe hail.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters