At least 70 people were feared dead in Kentucky after tornadoes and severe weather tore through multiple states and caused widespread devastation.
In the state of Illinois, many people were trapped after a roof partially collapsed at an Amazon.com Inc warehouse on Friday, with two people confirmed dead, local authorities said.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said at a news conference Saturday that the death toll may exceed 100.
“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.”
Beshear, who declared a state of emergency, said the strongest tornado tore 200 miles (322km) through the state, calling it the “most severe” in “Kentucky’s history”.
At least four tornadoes touched down overnight across Kentucky, causing significant damage in more than a dozen counties. The primary tornado travelled more than 227 miles (365 km) across the state.
Some of the worst destruction was in Mayfield in western Kentucky. About 110 people were inside a candle factory in the area when the tornado ripped through, taking down the roof, Beshear said.
The downtown of Mayfield resembled a pile of “matchsticks,” the small city’s mayor said on Saturday. “When I walked out of city hall this morning, it looked like matchsticks,” Mayor Kathy O’Nan told CNN network.
“Our downtown churches have been destroyed, our courthouse, which is of course right in the centre of town, is destroyed, our water system is not functioning at this time, there is no power,” she said.
US President Joe Biden called the devastation caused an “unimaginable tragedy”.
“To lose a loved one in a storm like this is an unimaginable tragedy. We’re working with Governors to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue,” Biden tweeted.
This morning, I was briefed on the devastating tornadoes across the central U.S. To lose a loved one in a storm like this is an unimaginable tragedy. We’re working with Governors to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 11, 2021
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane reporting from Washington, DC said it was “very unusual” for the tornado storm to take place in the winter month of December, because they are usually seen in the spring or summer season.
“It’s also unusual just how big of a storm it was and how powerful the storm was. Normally tornadoes as you know, they touchdown they stay in the ground a little bit, they go back up, they come back down,” she added.
Victor Gensini of Northern Illinois University said the devastation is the worst in recent history.“This path length … will be a near 400-kilometre (248-mile) path length. And very likely, this tornado will be rated violent,” he told Al Jazeera via Skype.
Thousands without power
Video and photos posted on social media but not yet verified as authentic by the news agency Reuters showed brick buildings in downtown Mayfield reduced to rubble, with parked cars nearly buried under bricks and debris.
In the early hours, more than 56,000 people in Kentucky were without power, Beshear said. He declared a state of emergency and was deploying dozens of national guardsmen to communities.
The storms caused a CSX company freight train to derail in western Kentucky, although it said no injuries were reported, the New York Times said.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes touching down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas.
In Illinois, police said there were two confirmed deaths after a roof partially collapsed at an Amazon.com Inc warehouse in the town of Edwardsville late on Friday.
Several people remained unaccounted for as rescuers frantically searched for workers who may be trapped in the facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, Police Chief Mike Fillback told reporters.
He said about 50 workers were believed to be at the warehouse when it was hit by an extreme “weather-related event” at about 8:30pm Friday (02:30 GMT on Saturday).
Drone footage of the warehouse showed a chaotic scene in the early morning dark, with hundreds of emergency vehicles around the area, and rescuers with flashlights combing through debris.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said, “My prayers are with the people of Edwardsville tonight.”
“Our Illinois State Police and Illinois Emergency Management Agency are both coordinating closely with local officials and I will continue to monitor the situation,” he added.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said “the safety and well-being of our employees and partners is our top priority right now. We’re assessing the situation and will share additional information when it’s available.”
It was not immediately clear how many people were hurt, but one person was flown by helicopter to a hospital.
Early on Saturday, rescue crews were still sorting through the rubble as branes and backhoes were brought in to help move debris. Police said the process would last for several hours.
Meanwhile, Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said three storm-related deaths had been confirmed in the state’s northwest. Two of the fatalities occurred in Lake County, and the third was in Obion County.
At least one person was killed and five were seriously injured when a tornado shredded the roof of a nursing home in Monette in northern Arkansas, US media reported.