Death toll rises as rescue efforts continue in wake of historic tornado outbreak
Kentucky's governor said on Sunday that the death toll in his state eclipsed 80 as rescue and recovery operations continued across many places that, drone imagery and news photos showed, resembled war zones.
Bill Wadell shows the devastating impact of the severe tornadoes that occurred on Dec. 11. Loved ones are missing, homes are destroyed and millions are without power.
As the scope of the devastation became clearer Saturday, nearly 24 hours after a nighttime tornado outbreak erupted across at least six states, President Joe Biden spoke out about the tragedy and pledged support to the areas impacted by what he described as potentially "one of the largest tornado outbreaks" in United States history.
On Sunday, during an appearance on CNN, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said, "I know we've lost more than 80 Kentuckians. That number is going to exceed more than 100." The governor acknowledged that the process of confirming fatalities has been slow. "This is the deadliest tornado event we've ever had," he said and echoed Biden's remarks that the tornado outbreak is likely to go down as the worst in American history.
The National Weather Service (NWS) in the coming days and weeks will determine precisely where the outbreak ranks, but the full extent of the damage across multiple states became increasingly apparent as daylight broke on Sunday morning.
With the confirmed death toll eclipsing 80 in Kentucky alone, this year has become the deadliest for tornadoes in the U.S. since 2011 when 553 were killed by twisters, according to an analysis of NOAA data. Up until Friday, there had been 14 tornado-related deaths in the U.S. in 2021.
Beshear told CNN's Jake Tapper that Kentucky has "towns that are gone -- I mean, just gone." He said one tornado tore a 227-mile-long path of destruction that left the town of Mayfield, Kentucky, in tatters.
It was in Mayfield that a candle factory was struck while workers were inside. The governor said he was "praying for each and every one of those families" impacted by the storms and described the outbreak as "one of the worst nights in Kentucky history."
In a press conference Saturday afternoon, Biden said FEMA will offer emergency housing to those affected. "I'm monitoring the situation really closely since earlier this morning," said Biden. Governors of the states affected were called by Biden throughout the day.
"We still don't know how many lives were lost and the full extent of the damage. The federal government will do everything it can possibly do to help," said Biden.
It was also announced in the press conference that the emergency declaration for Kentucky was approved by Biden. "I stand ready to do the same for the governors of the other states," Biden said.
Crews throughout the state were continuing their search through the rubble Saturday, with much of the focus on Mayfield, Kentucky, where the tornado struck a candle factory and multiple people were trapped inside, officials said.
Before-and-after satellite images show how a tornado that struck the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory completely destroyed the structure. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)
Tornado warnings were issued for several counties in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois Friday evening and into the overnight hours.
Nearly every mile on a 187 mile stretch of I-70 was under a tornado warning at some point during the outbreak - spanning from eastern Columbia, MO to St. Elmo, IL.
Following building warmth and humidity, the lid came off the atmosphere Friday evening as a cold front moved in from the west and lead to explosive thunderstorm development. In all, from eastern Texas into Indiana, over 16 million people across 9 different states found themselves in an area under a tornado alert Friday night into Saturday morning.
Just before 7 p.m. CST, a large and extremely dangerous tornado was confirmed by spotters near Greenfield, or near Jonesboro, in the northeastern corner of Arkansas. In the town of Monette, 25 miles from Jonesboro, Region 8 News reported at least one death after the Monette Manor Nursing Home sustained damage associated with a violent and dangerous tornado that had tracked through the area.
Craighead County Judge Marvin Day also reported "significant injuries" at the nursing home, with at least 20 people trapped and five people seriously injured, according to Region 8 News. The Region 8 newsroom was later forced to take shelter as the storms tracked through Jonesboro.
Brick homes were blown apart by the tornado in nearby Trumann, Arkansas, according to AccuWeather's Bill Wadell, with power lines down across the town. Buildings were crushed in Leachville, Arkansas, where at least one death was reported.
"I'm normally not scared of storms," said Molly Johnson, whose home in Leachville, Arkansas, collapsed during the severe weather. "You could feel the popping and feel the house cave [in]," she said, adding that she and her college-age son climbed through trees and stepped over live power lines before reaching a neighbor's home where they sought shelter. "It was crazy. The trailer next to me is in the trees."
AccuWeather's Bill Wadell reported live on the night of Dec. 10 as breaking information developed on multiple tornadoes across the southern U.S.
Kyana Parsons-Perez, an employee at the candle factory in Mayfield, was trapped under five feet of debris for at least two hours until rescuers managed to free her. In an interview with NBC's Today show, she said it was the “absolutely the most terrifying” event she had ever experienced. “I did not think I was going to make it at all.”
Several houses on Main Street in Mayfield were reported destroyed to the foundation or with significant damage. The county's emergency medical services department was also hit by the tornado, leaving the area without ambulances and requesting outside help. Some roads were impassable throughout Friday night into Saturday morning on the outskirts of the town due to debris.
The governor activated the Kentucky Guard and State Police as part of his state of emergency order.
The National Weather Service in Louisville, Kentucky, confirmed that a strong tornado with EF3 damage impacted the city of Bowling Green early Saturday. The twister struck the city with winds of at least 150 mph. As of Saturday afternoon, the damage assessment was still ongoing by the National Weather Service.
Western Kentucky University is located in Bowling Green and while school officials confirmed no injuries were reported on campus, they did report one death, that of a student's relative off campus. Western Kentucky’s President Tim Caboni initially said a student had died but further information revealed it was a relative of a student.
“Since the early morning hours, teams of our staff have been with us on campus working to assess damage, establish temporary power, restore campus networks and phone lines and restart basically operations," Caboni said. He added the primary structures on campus were largely spared from significant damage. The school’s commencement has been postponed.
Bowling Green Police Department told WHAS that an exact number of deaths in the city can't be determined, but there are feared to be multiple.
Help for Kentucky has been dispatched as far away as Texas to aid in relief. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott approved 10 Texas A&M Task Force 1 personnel to deploy a support team for those effected in Western Kentucky.
"The State of Texas stands ready to assist our friends in Kentucky as they continue their response and recovery efforts in the wake of deadly tornadoes that shook the western portion of their state overnight," said Gov. Abbott.
Also early Saturday, a train derailed and struck several houses near Earlington and Barnsley, Kentucky, around the time a tornado passed through the area. People were reported trapped in their homes in Bowling Green due to the tornado, with a fire breaking out at the National Corvette Museum and multiple injuries reported.
Another train derailment occurred near Elberfield, Indiana, where a tornado struck.
In Edwardsville, Illinois, at least six people were killed when a tornado ripped off the roof and a wall about the length of a football field collapsed at an Amazon distribution center Friday night, Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford told CNN. Workers were trapped in the building as emergency responders arrived and evacuated up to 100 people. An employee at the warehouse told a local news station that he saw people under debris and cars tossed into a retention pond.
Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy, who became president and CEO of the company in July, spoke out about the tragedy on Twitter Saturday afternoon, addressing the victims’ families and the afflicted towns.
“We’ve been closely monitoring the terrible situation in Edwardsville, and are heartbroken over the loss of our team members. Our thoughts are with their families at this difficult time,” Jassy said. “As this situation continues to evolve, I want our Edwardsville community to know we are working closely with local officials & first responders to support them. My deepest sympathies are with the Amazon community and all impacted.”
Former Amazon employee Kathie Burnett, who told Reuters she worked at the facility until two weeks ago, said the devastation gave her “shivers.”
“I would have been standing right in the middle of that track,” she said. “There would have been 100 trucks in there last night and you didn’t seen one this morning, did you?”
Edwardsville Police Chief Michael Fillback told Reuters that about 50 workers were believed to have been in the facility at the time of the tornado. At least 30 of those workers were transported by bus away from the wreckage.
“You have concrete, and you have things hanging. It’s quite windy outside, so things are unstable, so they have to shore those things up so that they can be safe,” he said. “Our first responders will continue to work this scene until everyone is accounted for.”
In Kenton, Tennessee, multiple people were reported trapped, as the National Weather Service observed 6-12 houses totaled. On Saturday morning, tornado sirens sounded across the Nashville area two tornadoes tore through, possibly causing a building collapse but largely staying out of downtown.
At least four deaths have been confirmed in Tennessee as a result of tornadic activity, according to CNN.
In Missouri, the National Weather Service declared a tornado emergency for southeastern portions of the state, including Steele, Caruthersville and Hayi. As the storms moved across the state, employees at the National Weather Service office in St. Louis, Missouri, briefly took shelter as a tornado tracked 1.5 miles south of the office.
Many parts of the St. Louis metro area were under tornado warnings as the storm came through. One person died and two others were injured in building collapses near the towns of Defiance and New Melle, both just a few miles from the weather service office, the AP reported.
Tornado producing storm as it moved through the St. Louis metro area.
On Saturday, survey teams assessed damage in five St. Louis metro area counties. In Missouri this included St. Charles and St. Louis counties. In Illinois this included Madison, Bond and Fayette counties.
The St. Louis National Weather Service reported damage of at least EF3 rating located 2.5 mies west of Defiance on Highway F. In addition, at least EF3 damage was found 2.3 miles northeast of Pontoon Beach at the Amazon Facility. Two additional tornadoes were given preliminary ratings of EF1 and EF0.
Power outages from the storm system that caused the tornadoes numbered over 900,000 customers Saturday evening in the U.S. and Canada, according to PowerOutage.us. The states with tornado damage, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky comprised 148,000 of the customers whiteout power.
A storm survey conducted by the NWS in Wilmington found an EF1 tornado had hit 2 miles south of Ada, located in Hardin county, Ohio.
Some of the same locations hit hard by these recent tornadoes just dealt with severe weather late this past weekend and earlier last week.
The three-year average from 2018 to 2021 for tornadoes in December across the U.S. is 47, according to the SPC. Some Decembers are more active in terms of tornadoes compared to others. In 2018, there were 66 tornadoes reported, compared to just 18 in 2020.
Additional reporting by Bill Wadell.Report a Typo
Top StoriesMore Stories