In Kentucky alone, the death toll is at least 80 people and is going to exceed 100, Gov. Andy Beshear told CNN on Sunday morning — making it the deadliest tornado event in the state’s history.
“I know people can see the visuals, but that goes on for 12 blocks or more in some of these places. And it’s going to take us time,” he said. “You think you would go door-to-door to check on people and see if they’re OK. There are no doors.
“The question is, is somebody in the rubble of thousands upon thousands of structures? I mean, it is devastating,” he added.
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Beshear confirmed a 3-year-old in Graves County and a 5-year-old in Muhlenberg County were among the dead.
Arkansas officials have reported two weather-related deaths; Tennessee has confirmed four; Illinois has reported six; and Missouri two. Kentucky has not released an official death toll.
Across the region, destroyed buildings, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets in hard-hit areas, making it tougher for rescuers trying to reach communities left with no working phone or power lines.
“The effects we are seeing of climate change are the crisis of our generation,” Criswell said. “We’re taking a lot of efforts at FEMA to work with communities to help reduce the impacts that we’re seeing from these severe weather events and help to develop systemwide projects that can help protect communities.”
Despite her assertion, scientific research on climate change’s influence on tornadoes is not as robust as for other types of extreme weather like droughts, floods and even hurricanes. The short and small scale of tornadoes, along with an extremely spotty and unreliable historical record for them, makes assessing their relationships to long-term, human-caused climate change very difficult.
Candle factory collapse in Kentucky
“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,” Beshear said. “Downtown is completely devastated.”
Troy Propes, CEO of the company that owns the candle factory, said he believed workers in the factory followed the proper tornado safety protocols.
“Our factory was built as a manufacturing facility and the concrete walls and the steel frame and the structure,” he said. “You would have thought it would have been one of the safest places but ironically, as you can see with this devastation, there wasn’t anything safe about this storm.”
“I think hindsight is always an incredible lens to look through but I think everybody made the best decisions and the right decisions with the information that they had,” he added.
Some family members are still searching for relatives who worked at the candle factory.
Paige Tingle, who was looking for her mother-in-law, Jill Monroe, said time is of the essence. The last time the family spoke with her, she was in the bathroom in the safe shelter area,” Tingle said Saturday.
“She (Monroe) has lung problems, she has heart problems,” Tingle said. “We’ve got to get her.”
The family checked local hospitals but they haven’t found her. Calls to her phone have gone unanswered.
Ivy Williams was at the Mayfield site Saturday looking for his wife of 30-plus years, Janine Williams, who was at the factory.
“I hope she’s somewhere safe,” Williams said, through tears. “Please call me … I’m looking for you, baby.” He last heard from her before the tornado hit, and was shocked to find the building completely leveled when he arrived at the scene.
First responders have pulled people out of the rubble — some of them alive, storm chaser Michael Gordon told CNN Saturday from the scene.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about. … They’re digging in that rubble by hand right now,” Gordon said.
Power outages and road-blocking debris add to misery
Beshear visited some of the affected areas Saturday to assess the damage. In his father’s hometown of Dawson Springs, which has a population of about 2,700, some remain unaccounted for.
“One block from my grandparent’s house, there’s no house standing and we don’t know where all those people are,” Beshear said.
The state has deployed the National Guard to conduct searches, clear debris from roadways, and take generators to help power shelters and hospitals. The governor urged people in affected communities that still have power to stay off the roads.
“Let our first responders get to everybody. Don’t go to these areas to see it. We need to make sure those who do this work can do it at the fastest possible speed,” he said.
Kentucky State Police Lt. Dean Patterson said the destruction is unlike anything he’s seen before. And the rescue and recovery effort will come with challenges.
“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.”
A hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, around 27 miles north of Mayfield, has been treating tornado victims. A majority of them 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.”
Amazon warehouse and nursing home also collapsed
In addition to Kentucky, deadly destruction was also reported in Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The six dead ranged in age from 26 to 62 years old, Edwardsville Police Department said.
An Amazon representative said a tornado warning siren sounded 11 minutes prior to the storm’s arrival.
She said employees sheltered in two different unspecified safe areas. Nantel said dispatchers also contacted Amazon delivery drivers in the area as well and told them to shelter in place.
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. A second person died after the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, officials said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday it was a “miracle” that only one person died at the nursing home.
“As I went to that facility, it was like heaven sucked up the roof and all the contents of it. And it’s just a miracle with 67 residents that we only lost one there. And that’s because of the heroic efforts by the staff and also the fact that we had 20 minutes of warning,” he said.
Officials confirmed two storm-related deaths in Missouri, including a woman killed at home in St. Charles County and a young child killed at home in Pemiscot County, the governor said.
Tennessee is reporting a total of four weather-related deaths from the severe weather. Two were in Lake County, one in Obion County, and one in Shelby County, Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Dean Flener said.
CNN’s Keith Allen, Dave Alsup, Mark Biello, Haley Brink, Travis Caldwell, Kevin Conlon, Carma Hassan, Dave Hennen, DJ Judd, Gregory Lemos, Eric Levenson, Brandon Miller, Paul P. Murphy, Sharif Paget, Nadia Romero, Andy Rose, Laura Studley and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.