Storms unleashed devastating tornadoes late Friday and early Saturday across parts of the central and southern United States, collapsing buildings into twisted debris and claiming lives, with officials fearing the death toll could exceed 80.
In Kentucky alone, the state’s governor says more than 70 people could have died after “one of the toughest nights in Kentucky history.”
Among the most significant damage: Tornadoes or strong winds collapsed an occupied candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon warehouse in western Illinois, and a nursing home in Arkansas, killing people in each community and leaving responders scrambling to rescue others.
More than 30 reports of tornadoes have been made in at least six states, including Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi. A stretch of more than 250 miles from Arkansas to Kentucky might have been hit by one violent, long-track twister, CNN meteorologists say.
“I’m pretty sure that number (killed in Kentucky) is north of 70 … it may, in fact exceed 100 before the day is done,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said late Saturday morning. “The level of devastation is unlike anything I have ever seen.”
One of the most devastated sites is the southwestern Kentucky city of Mayfield, where a tornado hit the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory Friday night while people were working. About 110 people were inside and dozens are feared dead there, Beshear said.
“They rescued 40,” Beshear said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “There’s at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there, it will be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it.”
The governor said he also visited Dawson Springs, his father’s hometown, with a population of about 2,700 where he says, “they’re going to lose a whole lot of people.”
“One block from my grandparent’s house, there’s no house standing and we don’t know where all those people are,” Beshear said.
Video from Mayfield showed what remained of the factory there: a massive debris field, largely of twisted metal, several feet high, with rescuers using hands and machines to dig through.
Among the survivors were Kyanna Parsons-Perez, who said workers had been hustled to a safety area before the storm hit. While attendance was being taken, she saw “a little dust of wind.”
“My ears start popping. And it was like the building, we all just rocked back and forth, and then boom – everything fell on us,” Kyanna Parsons-Perez told CNN’s Boris Sanchez.
Pinned by debris with others, she used her phone to broadcast on Facebook Live, and called 911, her mother and a coworker’s relative. She knew rescuers were around only when she could feel pressure from above – people walking on the debris.
“I was screaming like, ‘Sir, can you please just get this so I can move my leg?’ He said, ‘Ma’am, there’s about 5 feet worth of debris on top of you,’” she said.
Rescuers eventually pulled her and others out, she said.
An official Kentucky death toll hasn’t been released; deaths have been reported in Arkansas (two), Tennessee (four), Illinois (six) and Missouri (two).
In Warren County, Kentucky, children are among 12 storm-related fatalities, the county coroner’s office confirmed to CNN Saturday afternoon.
Warren County Coroner Kevin Kirby said that most of the fatalities are from the Russellville Road area.
The National Guard and other Kentucky state personnel are deploying to hard-hit areas for “house-to-house” searches and debris removal, Beshear told CNN.
“I want to thank every local emergency management employee, police officer, firefighter and first responder. This has been one of the toughest nights in Kentucky history. It’s hard to put into words,” he said in a later statement. “Remember, each of these lost lives are children of God, irreplaceable to their families and communities. But we will make it through this. We will rebuild. We are strong, resilient people – and we’re going to be there every step of the way. This is one state standing strong.”
He declared a state of emergency.
Biden to travel to damaged region
President Joe Biden told reporters traveling with him in Wilmington, Delaware, Saturday he had been closely monitoring the situation and had called the governors of the states that had been severely impacted by one of the “largest tornado outbreaks in our history.”
“I want to emphasize what I told all the governors, the federal government will do everything, everything you can possibly do to help,” he said, adding that he’d deploy the National Guard to states that deemed it necessary.
Biden told reporters he plans to travel to the region to survey storm damage when circumstances allow but didn’t want to be in the way.
“When a president shows up, he shows up with an awful lot of personnel, an awful lot of vehicles, an awful lot of – we can get in the way, unintentionally. And so, I’m working with the governor of Kentucky and others who may want me to be there, I made sure that we’re a value-added at the time, and we’re not going to get in the way of the rescue and recovery, but I do plan on going,” he said.
“My heart aches for those people right now, including the rescuers, including the burden on them and what they worry about,” Biden said. “I just think that we just have to keep at it. We have to keep focused. And this is going to be the focus of my attention until we get this finished.”
In an earlier message on Twitter, Biden called losing a loved one in storms like this an “unimaginable tragedy.”
He said he had spoken with Beshear and “indicated that he has directed FEMA and other federal agencies to provide the speediest assistance possible to impacted communities,” the White House said.
The White House later said Biden had approved a federal emergency declaration for Kentucky.
‘Many, many’ people pulled from Kentucky factory
Ivy Williams was at the Mayfield site Saturday, looking for his wife of 30-plus years, who he says was at the factory.
“I hope she’s somewhere safe,” Williams said, through tears. “Please call me … I’m looking for you, baby.”
First responders have pulled “many, many” people out of the rubble, some alive and some apparently dead, storm chaser Michael Gordon told CNN Saturday morning from the scene.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about. … They’re digging in that rubble by hand right now,” Gordon said.
Graves County, Kentucky, Commissioner Todd Hayden told CNN’s Pamela Brown he arrived at the candle factory in the dark to find “nothing but a pile of rubble.”
“You wondered how anybody could still be alive in there. Knowing there were a lot of people in that place, a bunch of us went over and started trying to uncover what might be there,” Hayden said.
“Seeing people come out of that pile of rubble alive was just amazing,” he said. “We would send in sawzalls and cutting tools to cut wires and bars and then all of a sudden they would come up out of a hole.”
Hayden said they probably rescued 10-12 people from the part of the debris where he was, some injured and many stunned and in shock.
“Some of them would come out crying. They’d see their husband or their father or whatever and they would immediately go to their arms and just fall in them. Other people – one lady came out she was kind of dancing, she was so happy to be out of there.”
People were working at the factory as it has been “going 24/7” in part to meet Christmastime candle demand, US Rep. James Comer, who represents the area, told CNN.
Graves County Coroner Brad Jones told CNN that “about 40” people remained unaccounted for at the factory. He declined to say how many of the more than 100 workers at the workspace had been accounted for.
“It’s changed the landscape … here in Mayfield,” Kentucky State Police Lt. Dean Patterson said. “We’re seeing (destruction) that none of us have ever seen before.”
On Saturday afternoon, Patterson described to CNN the process being used to try to find survivors in the town.
“It’s a very thorough and slow process, because you have to be careful when you are dealing with so much debris, and so many unknowns. One wrong move and you could actually cause more damage, so it’s a slow methodical process. Lots of people out there, working together to do everything they can to hopefully find some survivors in that devastating area.”
Patterson said that overnight emergency workers had received “dozens if not hundreds” of calls from people trying to find out if their loved ones were all right.
Once the sun rose, troopers went to the addresses flagged to them to try to make contact and let concerned relatives know, he said. “We are still doing that right now, we’re doing welfare checks and basically going door-to-door or what used to be a door to make sure there is no one else inside.”
Graves County jailer George Workman told CNN that his main jail is in ruins and he was forced to evacuate the 83 inmates to other facilities because the damage was so severe. None were injured at the jail when the tornado hit.
“(The damage is) structurally bad enough that I question it’ll ever be able to open again,” Workman said.
Workman said one of his deputies on assignment at the candle factory was killed when the tornado hit.
The deputy was at the factory as part of a work-release program for low-security, low-level offenders that had just started last week. Seven inmates were also on-site at the factory; three of them were treated for injuries at the scene.
Kyanna Parsons-Perez, who was trapped under at least five feet of rubble, told CNN that those inmates helped rescue her and others from the rubble.
A hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, some 27 miles north of Mayfield, has been treating tornado victims, a spokesperson told CNN.
A majority of those being treated had chemical burns, long bone injuries and crush injuries, Mercy Health Lourdes Hospital spokesperson Nanette Bentley said.
National Weather Service Chief Meteorologist John Gordon told a news conference in Kentucky that the tornado event was a “worst-case scenario.”
“Warm air in the cold season, middle of the night – this sickens me to see what has happened,” he said. “Look at the pictures on your screens. Homes, totally impaled, two-by-fours through cars, eighteen-wheelers thrown 30 feet moved in the northwesterly direction – that takes a lot of force.”
Severe thunderstorms still are possible Saturday from the northern Gulf states into the south-central Appalachians, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said. Tornado watches throughout the region were expected.
Six killed at Amazon warehouse in Illinois
At least six people have died at the collapsed Amazon warehouse in the Illinois city of Edwardsville outside St. Louis, after an EF-3 tornado caused major structural damage to the building Friday, Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said.
Forty-five people made it out of the building, with one person airlifted to a regional hospital for treatment, the chief said.
“Earlier this afternoon, the response portion of this incident came to a close and we’re now focused solely on recovery,” Whiteford said.
The recovery phase is expected to take three more days and first responders will continue “to search the site for evidence of life,” he said.
Amazon confirmed an unspecified number of deaths.
“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, Illinois. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone who has been impacted by the storm’s path across the US,” Amazon’s CEO Dave Clark posted on Twitter.
One resident earlier told CNN affiliate KMOV that a family member and employee was trapped inside, and that others inside were remaining calm and working to get out of the warehouse. Video from the scene showed a large emergency response.
“It’s devastating to see the amount of damage there and to know there were people inside when that happened,” Police Chief Mike Fillback told KMOV on Saturday morning. Police did not know how many people were in the building at the time of the collapse, Fillback said, nor how many people still were trapped inside.
Chief Whiteford told KMOV that a shift change was occurring when the tornado struck and additionally, people come to the warehouse to drop off Amazon vans and get in cars to leave, varying the number of people who could have been present.
Whiteford said the walls on both sides of the Amazon warehouse building “collapsed inward” and “the roof of the building collapsed downward so most of the weight of the building landed centrally into the building.”
“These walls are made out of 11-inch-thick concrete and they’re about 40 feet tall, so a lot of weight on that came down,” he said.
The fire department faced multiple hazards when they responded to the scene, Whiteford said. The building was charged with electricity, there was a natural gas leak, and water mains were broken, pouring water into the building.
Deaths in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee
Deadly destruction also has been reported in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
In the northeastern Arkansas city of Monette, at least one person was killed at a nursing home damaged by a tornado, Mayor Bob Blankenship said.
At the nursing home, many people were trapped before being rescued, officials said. At least 20 were injured at the facility, Blankenship told CNN.
Another person was killed in nearby Leachville, when a woman was “in a Dollar General store when the storm hit and they could not get out,” Mississippi County Sheriff Dale Cook told CNN.
Also in Arkansas, Interstate 555 near the town of Trumann was closed because of overturned vehicles, Arkansas Emergency Management spokesperson LaTresha Woodruff said. State officials had been told the town’s fire department, EMS facility and a nursing home were damaged, Woodruff said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who toured the damage in Monette and Trumann, said that to his knowledge at least two people had died in his state.
“At this point, I have two confirmed deaths. One is in Monette at the nursing home and the other one was in Leachville at a store that was struck in deadly fashion,” Hutchinson told CNN.
Hutchinson issued an emergency declaration for four counties in northeastern Arkansas on Saturday.
“Coming here to Monette and you see the devastation of this tornado… the most remarkable thing is that there’s not a greater loss of life,” Hutchinson said.
Tennessee is reporting a total of four weather-related deaths from the severe weather that hit the state overnight.
“We have four weather-related fatalities in Tennessee: two in Lake County, one in Obion County, and one in Shelby County,” Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Dean Flener told CNN.
In Obion County, multiple structures were damaged in the community of Samburg, according to officials. The town “is pretty well flattened,” Obion County sheriff’s dispatcher Judy Faulkner told CNN.
There is one person who remains missing in Lake County, Tennessee, TEMA chief of staff Alex Pellom said during a news conference.
Gov. Bill Lee said there could have been many more fatalities from the storms, but warnings helped.
“The residents of those communities were notified of the danger and notified of the imminence of these storms. And in many of the cases, we know that there were significant evacuations in the communities. We really know that that reduced the loss of life in our state,” he said.
“So, I just want to remind people that being prepared and heeding warnings – it’s very clear today that was a part of why we had the limited amount of loss of life in spite of the significant amount of damage,” Lee said.
Officials confirmed two storm-related deaths in Missouri.
“In St. Charles County, a woman was killed at home and two others were hospitalized. In Pemiscot County, a young child was killed at home and at least nine people were transported to hospitals,” Gov. Mike Parson’s office said in a news release.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life caused by this powerful-sustained storm system, and we are praying for the family and friends of those we have lost,” Parson said.
St. Charles County emergency management official Mary Enger earlier said that an 84-year-old woman died during overnight storms in the community of Defiance.
More than 400,000 homes and businesses lost power across eight states in the South and Midwest by 10 a.m. ET Saturday, including more than 130,000 in Tennessee and more than 60,000 in Kentucky, according to poweroutage.us.
The longest stretch of devastation ranged more than 250 miles from Arkansas to Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. That stretch might have been hit by one long-track tornado, CNN meteorologists said.
If it was one tornado, its path may have exceeded the longest on record: a tornado that was on the ground for 219 miles in 1925 in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
‘Gutters are hanging off her … roof’
About 70 miles northeast of Mayfield, Lori Wooten took cover in her daughter’s basement in the small Kentucky community of Dawson Springs as the storm passed Friday night. She emerged to see a 2-foot piece of wood having speared a master bedroom, and debris strewn about outside.
“Gutters are hanging off her … roof. The trampoline – there’s so much stuff out here, it’s hard to know what’s theirs and what’s other people’s,” Wooten, an aunt of CNN political analyst Scott Jennings, told CNN Saturday.
More than 100 tornado warnings were issued in the US Friday before midnight, the most ever for a day in December.
Along with multiple tornadoes, the storms produced dozens of wind and hail reports as of early Saturday.
Setting off weather alerts Friday from Arkansas to Indiana, the severity of the storms is anticipated to diminish as Saturday continues.
Much of the eastern US will be impacted by rain into Saturday evening. Isolated strong to severe thunderstorms may occur from the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys into the northern Gulf States, according to the Storm Prediction Center. Wind gusts, hail and an isolated tornado remain possible.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Kentucky emergency management Director Michael Dossett.
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Nadia Romero, Keith Allen, Brandon Miller, Joe Sutton, Dave Hennen, Haley Brink, Dave Alsup, Travis Caldwell, Laura Studley, DJ Judd, Andy Rose, Sharif Paget and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.