Dozens have been confirmed dead after a series of season-defying tornadoes Friday night in several U.S. states, causing a wide swath of destruction from weather conditions more common in spring. Officials expect the toll to rise.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to the governors of the five states hit by the tornadoes: Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. And he approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky, allowing the use of federal funds there.
Biden tweeted Saturday that he was briefed on the situations and said his administration is “working with Governors to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue."
As of Saturday night, at least 36 people were confirmed dead across the five states: 22 in Kentucky, six in Illinois at an Amazon facility, four in Tennessee, two in Arkansas and two in Missouri.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference early Saturday that 70 to 100 people were likely killed in his state, including in a candle factory in the town of Mayfield, where about 110 people were working when the storm hit.
“This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state’s history,” Beshear said at a news conference.
According to early reports, the tornado raced across the state for about 320 kilometers. But Victor Genzini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University, said it may have been on the ground for 400 kilometers. The longest twister on record tracked for about 355 kilometers across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in March 1925.
The tornado in Mayfield was one of at least four that devastated at least 10 counties in Kentucky.
"It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced in my life," one of the Mayfield factory workers, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, said in an interview that aired on NBC's Today show. "I did not think I was going to make it."
Storms also swept through the Kentucky city of Bowling Green, killing an off-campus Western Kentucky University student, according to the university’s president. Eleven of Kentucky’s confirmed deaths were from Bowling Green.
Beshear declared a state of emergency, activated the Kentucky National Guard and deployed the state police.
In neighboring Tennessee, three people were killed as storms hit the northwestern corner of the state, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Dean Flener.
An Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, was in the middle of a shift change when the tornado struck Friday night, collapsing the building and killing at least six people, fire Chief James Whiteford said. Because of the shift change, authorities don’t know if anyone is still unaccounted for.
"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.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's office said at least two people were killed in the towns of Defiance and New Melle and more were injured in building collapses. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or damaged, according to initial assessments.
A tornado also hit a nursing home in Monette in northern Arkansas, killing one person and trapping 20 people inside as the building collapsed, according to Craighead County Judge Marvin Day. He said five people sustained serious injuries and a few received minor ones.
Day said first responders rescued those trapped in the building that was “pretty much destroyed.”
Another person died when the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, according to the Associated Press.
"Probably the most remarkable thing is that there's not a greater loss of life," Hutchinson said after touring the wreckage of the nursing home. "It is catastrophic. It's a total destruction."
Scientists are warning with increasing urgency that global warming is making storms more powerful and frequent, posing even greater threats to areas where extreme weather is already common.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.