imageCredit…William DeShazer for the New York Times
Dozens of people were feared, and communities in the Midwest and South dug through rubble Saturday after a series of unusually strong storms and tornadoes swept across six states overnight.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said at least 70 people were killed and the state’s death toll could rise to over 100. The state was hit by four tornadoes, including one that stayed on the ground for more than 200 miles.
In Mayfield, Kentucky, about 110 people were huddled together in a candle factory when a tornado broke through them. About 40 people were saved, but Mr. Beshear said he believed “dozen” were killed there. At a press conference on Saturday, shocked local officials said they were struggling to comb through the debris amid blocked roads and lose water and electricity.
“This was the most devastating tornado event in the history of our state,” said Mr. Beshear at the meeting. “The extent of the devastation is unlike anything I’ve seen.”
Other states have also been hit hard. Officials said at least six people were killed in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois, four in Tennessee and two in Arkansas.
The storms – dark and huge funnel clouds that roared over the night landscape – destroyed houses, churches and shops, set buildings on fire and tore a train with 28 empty wagons from the tracks, leaving unearthly scenes of destruction.
In Mayfield, one of the hardest-hit communities, the town center had become a dangerous maze of rundown utility lines, dangling branches and scattered rubble. Jesse Perry, the chief judge in Graves County, which includes Mayfield, said local officials were “in the trenches trying to find people.”
“We need your prayers,” he said in a trembling voice at a press conference on Saturday. “We need your help.”
President Biden said he agreed to a Kentucky Emergency Declaration that will allow federal funds to flow into the state.
“We will get through this and we will get through this together,” said Mr Biden at a press conference. “The federal government will not go away.”
In Arkansas, a 94-year-old died and five people were injured when a tornado destroyed the Monette Manor nursing home, said Monette Mayor Bob Blankenship.
Mandi Sanders, who works at the house, said staff helped residents cover their heads with pillows to protect them from flying glass and debris before the walls collapsed and parts of the roof collapsed.
“It was like a booming train,” she said. “I didn’t think it would ever end.”
One person was also killed in a dollar general store in nearby Leachville, Ark., Governor Asa Hutchinson said.
“Probably the most notable thing is that there is no major loss of life,” Hutchinson said at a press conference.
Scientists aren’t sure if there is a link between climate change and the frequency or severity of tornadoes, partly due to limited data. However, researchers say that tornadoes seem to have appeared in larger “clusters” in recent years and that what is known as a tornado avenue in the Great Plains – where most tornadoes occur – appears to be shifting eastward.
At least six states – Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee – were hit by tornadoes on Friday night, according to reports from the National Weather Service.
The tornadoes were part of a weather system that wreaked havoc in many parts of the country and caused significant snowfalls in parts of the upper Midwest and Western Great Lakes, said Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the Storm Prediction Center.
Edwardsville, Illinois police 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 fled the building, said fire chief James Whiteford at a press conference on Saturday evening.
“This afternoon the response portion of this incident ended and our focus now is solely on recovery,” said Chief Whiteford. Authorities will continue to search for people in daylight for the next three days, he said.
Compounding the rescue efforts were thousands of power outages across the region. According to PowerOutage.us, around 77,000 customers in Kentucky and 53,000 customers in Tennessee were without power on Saturday night.