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Deadly tornadoes leave path of destruction across six states: ‘It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen’

An drone photo on Saturday shows widespread destruction of homes and businesses caused by a tornado in Mayfield, Ky. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MAYFIELD, Ky. — A desperate search and rescue operation unfolded Saturday across six states mauled the previous evening by rare late-season tornadoes that may have left more than 70 people dead.

More than 30 separate tornadoes moved with devastating power and speed through an area stretching from Mississippi in the south to Illinois in the north. As they swept through the region over several hours, the twisters killed dozens, including workers in a candle factory in a flattened Kentucky town, lakeside vacationers in Tennessee and a nursing home resident in Arkansas.

While the stream of tornadoes battered dozens of communities, none suffered more than this town of about 10,000 people in southwestern Kentucky, not far from a sweeping bend in the Mississippi River marking the border with Missouri. As the wind stiffened into the high 70 mph range, some employees stuck in the disintegrating Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory took to Facebook to make a video plea for help.

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)

“This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state’s history,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) told reporters Saturday at a late-morning news conference, calling the scale of damage “indescribable.”

“The level of devastation is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he continued. “You see parts of industrial buildings’ roofs or sidings in trees, if trees are lucky enough to stand. Huge metal poles bent in half, if not broken. Buildings that are no longer there. Huge trucks that have been picked up and thrown. And sadly, far too many homes that people were likely in, entirely devastated.”

Following tornado destruction through the Quad State area

Beshear spoke with President Biden early Saturday to outline the scope of the damage and the federal assistance necessary to help speed the recovery. Biden later declared a federal emergency for Kentucky, freeing up FEMA assistance and federally subsidized aid, calling the tornado “an unimaginable tragedy.”

The tornadoes that swept through parts of the Midwest and Tennessee River Valley on Friday night and into early Saturday likely may be recorded as the worst on record in the United States during December. Peak tornado season in the region is usually late spring through early summer.

The tornadoes were triggered by a powerful low-pressure system, which lifted from the Southern Great Plains into the Great Lakes. The low-pressure intensified as the polar jet stream, the high-altitude current along which storms track, plunged into the central United States ahead of a blast of record-setting warm air.

The unusual combination — the polar cold meeting the unseasonably hot — created unstable air over Arkansas Friday evening that generated numerous thunderstorms. Those rotating storm systems eventually evolved into tornadoes.

Tornadoes tore through at least six states for more than three hours on Dec. 10 and into Dec. 11. Capital Weather Gang’s Mathew Cappucci explains. (Video: Matthew Cappucci, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

The National Weather Service received 37 reports of tornadoes on Friday in six states. The most destructive tornado, or series of tornadoes, carved an approximately 250-mile path through northeast Arkansas, southeast Missouri, northwest Tennessee and into western Kentucky.

“Last night was one of the most shocking weather events in my 40 years as a meteorologist — a violent tornado (in December!) drawing comparisons to the deadliest and longest-tracking tornado in U.S. history,” tweeted Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and expert on extreme weather.

The longest paths on record top 200 miles — but with some caveats. A 235-mile track in March 1953 is the modern record, according to data from the Storm Prediction Center. Since none of these tornadoes have occurred since 1971, it is possible they were actually tornado “families,” rather than a single sustained event.

The 219-mile-long Tri-State Tornado of March 1925 is widely considered to be the longest tornado path. The deadliest tornado in U.S. history, that tornado killed 695 people as it rumbled through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in the dark of night.

This event’s path could exceed that in length. But Rick Smith, a meteorologist at the Weather Service office in Norman, Okla., tweeted that the quad-state tornado was more likely multiple twisters rather than just one. On-the-ground surveys to sort this out may be “a complex process that could take some time,” Smith wrote.

See the damage caused by deadly tornadoes

Panic in the candle factory

Kentucky authorities on Saturday were unable to say how many people had died at the candle factory because rescue operations were still underway. But Beshear said about 40 people were rescued from the facility and that about 110 were believed to have been inside at the time.

Authorities described massive damage to the plant, and dangerous conditions — including toppled metal drums leaking corrosive chemicals — that complicated rescue efforts.

“We had to at times crawl over casualties to get to victims” who were still alive, Mayfield Fire Chief Jeremy Creason told reporters. As first responders worked throughout the night to reach people amid the debris, Creason said, there was also “a steady flow of walking wounded” in addition to rescues.

Mayfield officials said both the city’s main fire station and police station were in the direct path of the tornado on Friday, and they had to extricate first responders from the destroyed stations before they could move to rescue other tornado victims.

Something different coming

Beshear said the casualties from the storm’s path will likely span about 10 counties. While Mayfield was severely hit, state officials said Dawson Springs, about 70 miles to the northeast, was also devastated.

Ryan Mitchum is usually the one standing outside on the porch to watch storms roll into western Kentucky. This time, though, he knew something awful was on its way.

For days, communities along the Kentucky-Tennessee border were warned that strong tornadoes were possible. A local news channel pleaded with residents to take the forecast seriously. “ ‘Don’t take this as a joke,’ they told us,” Mitchum said.

Mitchum hunkered down with his girlfriend in their hallway. But a gust shook the house so violently that the couple moved into a closet. The house, about a
10-minute drive from Mayfield, swayed but survived the storm.

On Saturday morning, Mitchum drove through his hometown, stunned by its ruins.

“It was like a movie scene,” he said. “I don’t think anybody expected it to be as bad as it was.”

Mitchum recorded his tour from his truck as he drove through debris-laden streets and what was the historic downtown.

“Mayfield’s wiped,” he said.

Cars and trucks had been launched into fields. His great-grandparents’ home was flattened. Their donkey was killed.

The downtown buildings left standing had their windows completely blown out and their window-frames left dangling. Businesses were destroyed, he said, and there was nothing left of a lower-income community behind the town’s main boulevard.

“Mayfield needs some prayers,” he said in the video. Mitchum’s Facebook video was shared widely, and his phone was flooded with messages from people sending addresses, asking for help to check on loved ones.

A warehouse collapses

In Edwardsville, Ill., one tornado caved in part of an Amazon distribution warehouse, leaving people inside stranded and at least two dead, authorities said.

About a dozen agencies responded to the scene, about 20 miles northeast of St. Louis. Excavators and rescuers were seen entering the site early Saturday morning.

The Edwardsville Fire Department confirmed at least two fatalities. “One individual was transported by air medical from the scene,” said a fire department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the operation.

“It’s obviously a large area to try to clear,” the official said, adding that about 30 people were transported by bus from the scene.

Clayton Cope, a 29-year-old maintenance worker known for his kindness, was one of the people killed inside the Amazon warehouse. Tributes honoring Cope flooded across social media, with his loved ones reminiscing about his fun personality.

In one post, Rachel Cope, his sister, described him as her “biggest idol” and recounted the times when the two siblings would search for Christmas presents to ruin their surprises and annoyed each other “till we couldn’t stand it.”

“He’s the reason I’m into video games and anything that I enjoy because I just wanted to be like him,” his sister wrote on Facebook. “I loved him and looked up to him so much, and I genuinely don’t know what I’ll do without him.”

Around 40 workers at the Amazon warehouse were briefly sent to a Pontoon Beach Police Department office, which was being used as a gathering and recovery point, said Rich Schardan, a department assistant chief. None required medical care. People were given access to chaplains, food and drink.

“Our thoughts, prayers, and deepest sympathies are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted,” said Amazon spokesman Richard Rocha in a statement, adding that the company was assessing the situation. “This is a devastating tragedy for our Amazon family and our focus is on supporting our employees and partners.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Grateful it wasn't far worse

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) arrived Saturday morning to the shredded ruins of a nursing home in the town of Monette, where one of the state’s two tornado deaths occurred.

Hutchinson and other state officials stepped over rubble strewn with pink insulation, which had been ripped from the walls by the storm.

“It’s total destruction,” Hutchinson told reporters. “Makes you grateful there wasn’t a greater loss of life.”

Shortly before 9 p.m. Friday, the roof of the 86-bed nursing home collapsed, trapping scores of residents inside. One person was found dead and five were injured.

Survivors were evacuated to a local school as active storms remained in the area, said Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association.

Hutchinson and other officials touring the damage by helicopter said the use of warning sirens helped lessen the loss of life, alerting towns and communities 15 to 25 minutes before the tornado struck.

Hutchinson said about 20,000 Arkansas residents remain without power. He told reporters that he planned to travel next to the town of Leachville, where a second fatality occurred at a Dollar General store.

“We may have to do a lot of debris removal. We have a lot of homes that have been significantly damaged, if not totally destroyed,” he said.

Bob Blankenship, the mayor of Monette, told reporters the tornado was the most powerful to strike the town since 1984.

A deadly weekend getaway

At least three people were killed in Tennessee after a tornado swept through the state, according to emergency officials in Lake and Obion counties, where search and rescue operations are underway.

Two died at Cypress Point, a collection of cabins that people use for weekend getaways on the banks of Reelfoot Lake, said Jack Mauldin, director of the Lake County Emergency Management Agency. A third adult is missing in Lake County.

Mauldin said Tiptonville, the county seat, was largely undamaged as the tornado wove along its outer edge toward the lake.

“It just destroyed whatever it touched,” Mauldin said. “There was only one tornado here, but it was on the ground an awfully long time.”

Gaffney reported from Mayfield, Ky. Nick Miroff, Katie Mettler, María Luisa Paúl, Meryl Kornfield, Jason Samenow, Andrew Jeong, Magda Jean-Louis and Amy Cheng contributed to this report.