US President Joe Biden has pledged support for states hit by a swarm of devastating tornadoes that demolished homes, leveled businesses and claimed at least 100 lives.
Describing the tornadoes as possibly “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in history, Biden on Saturday endorsed an emergency disaster declaration for the hardest-hit state of Kentucky, where at least 22 people have been confirmed dead.
“It’s a tragedy,” said a shaken Biden. “And we still don’t know how many lives are lost and the extent of the damage.”
He added: “I promise you that whatever is needed – whatever is needed – the federal government will find a way to provide it.”
The powerful tornadoes, which meteorologists say are unusual for the coldest months, tore down a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, destroyed a retirement home in nearby Arkansas and killed at least six workers in a Amazon warehouse in Illinois.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the collection of tornadoes was the most destructive in state history. He said around 40 workers were rescued from the candle factory, which had around 110 people inside when it was reduced to a pile of rubble.
It would be a “miracle” to find someone else living under the rubble, Beshear said.
“The devastation is unlike anything I’ve seen in my life and I struggle to put it into words,” Beshear said at a press conference. “It will most likely be over 100 people lost here in Kentucky.”
Videos and photos posted to social media showed brick buildings in downtown Mayfield flattened, with parked cars nearly buried under debris.
Mayfield Fire Chief Jeremy Creason, whose own station was destroyed, said the candle factory was reduced to a “pile of bent metal, steel and machinery” and responders sometimes had to ” crawling on the victims to reach the living victims”.
‘Pray for us’
A worker had taken to Facebook asking for help.
“We are trapped, please all of you help us,” the woman says, her voice quavering, as a colleague can be heard moaning in the background. “We are at the Mayfield candle factory. … Please, all of you. Pray for us.”
The woman, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, was trapped under five feet (about 1.5 metres) 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 “absolutely the most terrifying event” she had ever experienced. “I didn’t think I was going to make it at all.”
Among those missing at the candle factory was Janine Denise Johnson Williams, a 50-year-old mother of four whose family members kept vigil at the site on Saturday.
“It’s Christmas time and she works at a place that makes candles for gifts,” her brother Darryl Williams said. “Renouncing the gift of life to make a gift. We haven’t heard anything, and I’m not assuming anything. But I expect the worst. “
The tornado outbreak was triggered by a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a supercell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas. This storm moved from Arkansas and Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.
The National Weather Service‘s Storm Prediction Center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes affecting Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Unusually high temperatures and humidity created the environment for such an extreme weather event at this time of year, said Victor Gensini, professor of geographic and atmospheric sciences at Northern Illinois University.
“This is a historic event, if not a generational one,” Gensini said.
If initial reports are confirmed, the tornado could have touched down nearly 250 miles (400 km), he said, a longer path length than the longest tornado on record, which traveled about 220 miles ( 355 km) through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. in March 1925.
Biden told reporters he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency to look into the role climate change may have played in fueling the storms, and he raised questions about warning systems to tornadoes.
“What warning was there?” And was it loud enough and was it heard? he said.
Amazon warehouse collapse
In Edwardsville, Illinois, Fire Chief James Whiteford said at least six people were killed when an Amazon warehouse collapsed. Some 45 people survived.
But Whiteford said authorities don’t know if anyone is still missing because workers were in the middle of a shift change when the tornado hit them on Friday.
“This is a devastating tragedy for our Amazon family and our goal is to support our employees and partners,” Amazon spokesman Richard Rocha said in a written statement.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which tried to organize workers at an Amazon factory in Alabama, criticized the company for keeping the Illinois site open during a weather emergency.
In Monette, Arkansas, one person was killed and five seriously injured when a tornado tore through a 90-bed nursing home.
“Walls and roofs have been ripped off,” NBC correspondent Jay Gray told Al Jazeera. “The entire back half of this facility is gone, all that’s left is crumbled brick, twisted metal, broken glass. This type of loss is happening right now in communities in six states.”
Reporting from the scene of the disaster, Gray said most people were still in shock.
“What I hear from survivors is staggering disbelief,” he said. “It’s out of season. This is not a time of year when you see tornadoes.
“It was caused by a cold front colliding with unusually warm weather for the season. Now we’re on the back of that, so the temperatures are really dropping and you have dozens of families across the region, no only wondering how they’re going to stay warm, but where they’re going to stay long term.”
The death toll also included four people in Tennessee and two in Missouri.
As of Saturday afternoon, nearly 99,000 customers in Kentucky and more than 71,000 in Tennessee were without power, according to PowerOutage.US, a power outage tracking website.
Kentucky officials called on residents to stay off the roads and donate blood, as responders rushed to rescue survivors and report on residents of communities who had lost communications.
“We have guards knocking on the door and checking people out because there is no other communication with some of these people,” said Brigadier General Haldane Lamberton of the Kentucky National Guard.