KENTUCKY (REUTERS) - A devastating swarm of tornadoes ripped through six US 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 on Saturday (Dec 11).
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 neighbouring Missouri, and killed at least two workers at an Amazon warehouse outside St Louis.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the collection of tornadoes was the most destructive in the state’s history. He said 70 workers at the candle factory in the city of Mayfield remained unaccounted for after about 110 people were 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 reduced 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 in contact at 9.30pm.
“We don’t know what to think. We are extremely nervous. 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.
Victor Gensini, a professor in geographic and atmospheric sciences at Northern Illinois University, said unusually high temperatures and humidity levels created the environment for the disaster.
“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.
‘Like a train roaring through town’
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.
“It just took a direct hit,” Day told Reuters. “We were very blessed that more people weren’t killed or injured in that. It could have been a whole lot worse.”
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 spokesman said.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes touching down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, and Mississippi.