Kentucky tornadoes: Hopes rise that death toll could be lower than feared

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Kentucky tornadoes: Hopes rise that death toll could be lower than feared” was written by Richard Luscombe, Samira Sadeque with agencies, for theguardian.com on Monday 13th December 2021 12.31 UTC

US president Joe Biden declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky after a swarm of deadly tornadoes hit the state on Friday, as representatives of a candle factory destroyed by a twister said far fewer people may have died than previously feared.

Biden had previously declared the storms a federal emergency and the move to designate the storms a federal disaster paves the way for additional aid, as thousands face housing, food, water and power shortages.

It follows a formal request from Kentucky governor Andy Beshear who said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history.

 

Beshear had said on Sunday morning that the death toll was expected to exceed 100 after twisters tore through the US midwest and south on Friday night but later that figure had been revised down, although amid power cuts and phone services down across many communities, there was not yet certainty over numbers.

Dozens of people in several counties in the state are still believed to have died in the storms, but Beshear said later on Sunday that the death toll might be as low as 50, according to the Associated Press.

“We are praying that maybe original estimates of those we have lost were wrong. If so, it’s going to be pretty wonderful,” the governor said.

An aerial photo shows the destruction of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory
An aerial photo shows the destruction of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory
Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Among the 110 people who were at the candle factory, eight have been confirmed dead and eight others remained missing, said Bob Ferguson, a spokesperson for Mayfield Consumer Products, which owns the factory. He said 90 people had been located, a figure that authorities were still trying to confirm on Monday morning.

“There were some early reports that as many as 70 could be dead in the factory. One is too many, but we thank God that the number is turning out to be far, far fewer,” Ferguson said, adding that rescue teams were still searching for the eight who remained unaccounted for.

It was unclear how many factory workers Beshear was counting in his latest death toll estimates.

By Monday morning, weather experts had estimated that more than 40 tornadoes hit parts of nine states.

Rescue workers continued to scour debris for survivors and many people without power, water or even a roof over their heads salvaged what they could two days after disaster struck.

While Kentucky was hardest hit, six workers were killed at an Amazonwarehouse in Illinois after the plant buckled under the force of the tornado, including one cargo driver who died in the bathroom, where many workers said they had been directed to shelter.

Map
Map

A nursing home was struck in Arkansas, causing one of that state’s two deaths. Four were reported dead in Tennessee and two in Missouri.

Nowhere suffered as much as Mayfield, a community of about 10,000 in the south-western corner of Kentucky, where the large twisters also destroyed the fire and police stations. The governor said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history.

“The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together,” Beshear said, noting that one tornado tore across 227 miles (365 km) of terrain, almost all of that in Kentucky.

A vast storm front moved across the Mississippi basin and parts of the US south-east and midwest on Friday night, spawning more than 30 tornadoes.

Spring is the main season for tornadoes and this latest event was very unusual coming in December, when colder weather normally limits tornadoes, said Victor Gensini, an extreme weather researcher at Northern Illinois University.

Debris are piled after a tornado tore through rural Kentucky
Debris are piled after a tornado tore through rural Kentucky.
Photograph: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Asked if he thought the intensity of the storms was related to climate crisis, president Biden said: “All I know is that the intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet. The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point.”

Illinois was hit, too, and six people were killed in the collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, with another injured worker airlifted to a hospital, fire chief James Whiteford said.

In addition, so far four people have been reported killed in Tennessee, two in Arkansas and two in Missouri as well as the high toll in Kentucky.

Kyanna Parsons-Perez, who was at the candle factory in Mayfield, said she felt the building was making her and her co-workers “rock from one side to the other” right before it collapsed.

Parsons-Perez was stuck for three hours in the rubble, and documented part of it in a livestream on Facebook in which her co-workers can be heard crying in fear.

Sitting in the hospital, she told the Guardian how a gust of wind suddenly changed everything. “My ears started popping and I felt my body swaying,” she said of the moments right before the building collapsed.

Homes and business are reduced to rubble in Mayfield, Kentucky
Homes and business are reduced to rubble in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

She became very scared upon learning that she was buried under. “When I found out it was an air conditioner on me and five people on the debris on top of me is when I got scared,” she said.

The storm was so powerful that a photograph from a tornado-damaged home in Kentucky was found almost 130 miles away in Indiana.

The US uniquely experiences more than 1,200 tornadoes annually, more than four times the number in other countries around the world where they occur, combined, according to experts.

With Reuters and the Associated Press

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