Seven central and southern US states were picking up the pieces Saturday after a series of powerful tornadoes intensified by severe storms ripped across the region, leaving an estimated 70 to 100 people dead.
Kentucky was hardest hit as four tornadoes, including a massive storm, devastated Mayfield, a small town 134 miles (215 km) north-west of Nashville, Tennessee. A candle factory partially collapsed when the tornado struck on Friday evening.
More than 30 tornadoes pummeled a 200-mile plus area in what US President Joe Biden described as an “unimaginable tragedy”. Initial reports were of six confirmed fatalities but this was expected to rise significantly, with dozens of people unaccounted for.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he believes “at least dozens” of workers at the factory were killed when the roof collapsed in what may turn out the be the deadliest tornado event in the state’s history.
“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.”
Sarah Burgess, a trooper with the Kentucky state police, said that “the entire building is essentially leveled”. Trooper Burgess later added that she could not tabulate the number of fatalities as search and rescue teams were going through the rubble.
There were around 110 workers in the factory — Mayfield Consumer Products — when the tornado struck. Mayfield mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said the candle factory “looks as if a bomb has dropped on it.”
“We hope there are still rescues to be made. We fear that it is now just recovery,” O’Nan added.
Images posted on social media showed the deadly but erratic nature of tornadoes, with buildings, vehicles and trees torn apart on one street, then a neighboring street left relatively unscathed.
“Absolutely catastrophic damage in Mayfield,” tweeted Whitney Westerfield, a state senator, where police announced at 7pm local time curfew for Saturday night. “Gentleman at the roadblock said that his house was fine, but his next-door neighbor’s house was completely gone.”
Other structures that were badly damaged include an Amazon facility in Illinois, where two died, according to Police Chief Mike Fillback, and a nursing home in Arkansas.
“It’s an utter disaster,” Fillback said of the Amazon center.
The weather system that passed over the region was intensified when cold air from the Plains met unusually warm air from the south.
Most of the devastation occurred on the “warm” side of the storm, and at least one of the four recorded tornadoes may have been on the ground for 100 miles (160 km).
“To lose a loved one in a storm like this is an unimaginable tragedy,” Biden said in a statement, adding that the federal government was working with regional governors “to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue”.
Still, the scale of the damage from the system, coming after a series of recent climate-crisis intensified “weather events” across the US, caught many by surprise. Some 12 hours after the storm – named Atticus by the Weather Channel – struck, 500,000 homes and businesses across eight states were without power.
“There were tons of vehicles just thrown like toys,” said channel meteorologist Chris Bruin, noting that tractor dealerships were destroyed and semis blown over along the highway.
Among the missing at the candle factory are Denise Johnson Williams, a 50-year-old mother of four whose family members kept vigil at the site Saturday.
“It’s Christmas time and she works at a place that’s making candles for gifts,” her brother, Darryl Williams, said. He said his sister had called her husband overnight to report the weather was getting bad but that was the last time anyone heard from her.
“To give up the gift of life to make a gift,” her brother said. “We haven’t heard anything, and I’m not presuming anything. But I’m expecting for the worst.”
Kyana Parsons-Perez, an employee at the candle factory, said she had been trapped under five feet of debris for at least two hours until she was freed by rescuers. Shortly before the tornado struck, she recalled, the building’s lights flickered. Her ears started “popping” and then, “Boom. Everything came down on us.”
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