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Powerful tornadoes strike 6 states, leaving destruction, at least 6 deaths and fears of dozens more

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The latest live updates: Dozens feared dead after powerful tornadoes strike several states

Residents of Mayfield, Ky., tried to make sense of the devastation on Dec. 11 after a tornado tore through their community, destroying homes and businesses. (Video: Stevie Charles Rees, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

An outbreak of powerful tornadoes left behind destruction and at least six fatalities Friday night and into early Saturday. The storms included a twister that tore through parts of four states, trapping dozens of other people and toppling numerous structures.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said that there were “likely” to be at least 50 deaths, “if not significantly north of that.”

“The reports are really heartbreaking,” he said in an interview with local TV station WLKY early Saturday morning.

The “quad-state tornado” was unusually long-lasting and strong for the time of year, weather experts said. The twister, which ripped through Monette, Ark., and Mayfield, Ky., on Friday evening is likely to have carved out a 240-mile path, crossing into Missouri and Tennessee, as well. If the tornado remained on the ground without interruption, it would rank as the longest tornado track in U.S. history and the first to cross through four states.

Authorities in Illinois and Mississippi also reported other catastrophic — and occasionally deadly — damage.

In the quad-state tornado’s path, weather radar detected debris from a twister for more than three hours straight, sometimes lofted over 30,000 feet into the sky.

At least one person was killed and five injured when that tornado shredded the roof of the 86-bed Monette Manor nursing home in northeast Arkansas, Craighead County Judge Marvin Day said.

The National Weather Service had issued tornado warnings for several cities across the Tennessee and Ohio river valleys, including Benton, Ky., and Mayfield, Ky., where residents were told to “TAKE SHELTER NOW.” Beshear, who declared a state of emergency, said the damage would be “some of the worst … we’ve seen in a long time.”

A spokeswoman for Kentucky’s emergency management service said rescue officials had not confirmed fatality or injury figures as of early Saturday.

In Tennessee, the severe weather had killed at least three people as of early Saturday, said Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Two fatalities occurred in Lake County and the other in Obion County, he said.

In Edwardsville, Ill., a St. Louis suburb, a tornado caved in part of an Amazon distribution warehouse, leaving people inside stranded, Collinsville Emergency Management Agency said on Facebook. At least a dozen agencies have responded to the scene. Edwardsville police confirmed early Saturday that the facility had partially collapsed.

Rescuers in Monette searched the battered nursing home and found more than 20 people, Day said. The local official, who previously said there were two fatalities, said he doesn’t yet know the extent of the injuries. Communications were difficult because a cellphone tower appeared to have been destroyed, he added.

Mayfield felt the full force of the tornado, whose powerful winds engulfed the city of about 10,000. Police rushed to respond to several reports of collapsed houses and buildings.

At a candle factory, scores of people were trapped in the rubble when the building was destroyed, said Trooper Sarah Burgess, a public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police.

Downed power lines and trees thrown across the roads have challenged rescue operations being carried out by the police, Burgess said.

Storm chaser Chris Jackson began his pursuit of the tornado in Arkansas and reached Mayfield on Friday evening to find a scene of devastation.

He said he saw the walls of commercial warehouses, including the candle factory, “completely flattened.”

“Everything around us, as much as we could see, is completely destroyed,” Jackson said. “This is without a doubt the worst [tornado] I have ever seen, and I have been chasing storms for seven years.”

About 80 miles away, a train was turned over by strong winds as it passed through Hopkins County, Ky., local Sheriff Matt Sanderson told local television. But he said that known injuries in the area were “minor.”

In Missouri, footage from the local CBS affiliate showed debris on highways and homes with their roofs torn off. A spokesperson for St. Charles County, near St. Louis, said that three people from Defiance, where two highways intersect, had been taken to hospital.

At the Amazon facility in Illinois, excavators and rescuers were seen entering the site. Sarah Biermann, in an interview with NBC’s local affiliate, said she was “worried sick” about her husband, who works at the facility. She said she had spoken to him as he was returning to the warehouse to return his van but had not heard from him since. Calls to his phone went straight to voice mail, she said.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard after powerful tornadoes struck several states on Dec. 10. (Video: Kentucky Governor)

Around 40 workers at the warehouse were briefly sent to a Pontoon Beach Police Department office, which was being used as a gathering point, said Rich Schardan, a department assistant chief. None required medical care. People were given access to chaplains, food and drink. All 40 had left for home by shortly after midnight, he said.

“The safety and well-being of our employees and partners is our top priority right now,” Amazon spokesman Richard Rocha said in a statement, adding that the company was assessing the situation.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said that he had spoken to the Edwardsville mayor and that state police and emergency services were ready to assist.

In Monette, officials learned of the damage to the nursing home before 9 p.m., and multiple officers from various local police departments answered a call asking “for anyone and everybody who’s a first responder in the area and can, to go that way,” Jonesboro Police Department Officer Kaitlyn Inouye said.

The tornado that tore through Monette formed southwest of Jonesboro, Ark., Friday evening, probably then transiting through northeast Arkansas, southeast Missouri, northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky. Meteorologists projected that it would rate at least an EF3 on the 0 to 5 scale for tornado intensity. If it were confirmed to be that strong, it would be the most intense ever observed in the region in December.

The National Weather Service issued the first tornado warning for the storm at 7:06 p.m. Central time, stating that a “confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” had formed. The storm moved over Monette at 7:24 p.m. and Mayfield at 9:27 p.m. The tornado was still on the ground about 60 miles southwest of Louisville at 11:30 p.m.

The exceptionally long-lasting twister was one of many that formed in the Midwest and Tennessee Valley on Friday evening as the Weather Service placed 18 million people in eight states under tornado watches.

Earlier in the day, the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had declared a level 4 out of 5 risk for severe storms in the region, warning that a few strong tornadoes could form.

It was the first issuance of such a risk level in December since 2019 and only the second since 2015, according to Greg Diamond, a meteorologist for Fox Weather.

The storms were triggered by a powerful cold front sweeping through the Midwest that was colliding with record-breaking warmth out ahead of it.

It is unusual to have a severe storm outbreak of this intensity in December, when the warm, unstable air required to fuel intense storms is typically limited. But the record warmth swelling over the eastern third of the country created a storm environment more characteristic of March or April than December.

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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