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Over 80 killed in tornadoes in central U.S.; Biden declares emergency in Kentucky

Destruction was evident throughout Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, after a tornado ripped through the area. Scores of people were killed in Kentucky.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Destruction was evident throughout Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, after a tornado ripped through the area. Scores of people were killed in Kentucky.

Updated December 11, 2021 at 9:49 PM ET

Scores of people in the South and Midwest are believed dead after severe weather that caused multiple tornadoes struck late Friday night and early Saturday morning, tearing through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.

At least 70 people are likely to have died in Kentucky alone, the governor said, and the death toll may rise to more than 100. President Biden approved the state's emergency declaration in order to provide federal funds for relief efforts. He called the damage "devastating."

Officials in Illinois confirmed six fatalities at an Amazon warehouse near St. Louis. At least four people were killed in Tennessee, two in Arkansas and two in Missouri.

Kentucky was "ground zero" for the tornados, governor says

Dozens of tornadoes were counted, the worst of which hit western Kentucky. Tornado warnings from the National Weather Service continued in the region Saturday morning.

"This event is the worst, most devastating, most deadly tornado event in Kentucky's history," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Saturday afternoon.

"The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life and I have trouble putting it into words," he said after viewing damage in multiple areas.

Emergency workers search what is left of the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory on Saturday after it was destroyed in Mayfield, Ky.
John Amis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Emergency workers search what is left of the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory on Saturday after it was destroyed in Mayfield, Ky.

Beshear spoke with the president over the phone Saturday afternoon and said the federal emergency declaration will bring in more resources to respond to the disaster.

President Biden said on Saturday that he also spoke with governors from Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Illinois, states that also saw damage from the tornadoes.

"The federal government will do everything, everything it can possibly do to help," Biden said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed search and rescue teams and water and supplies, he said, and would help with finding people temporary housing.

Biden said he is ready to declare emergencies for other affected states if the governors request it. He said he plans to visit Kentucky when his presence won't take away from emergency response efforts.

People search through a storm-damaged building on Saturday in Mayfield, Ky. Multiple tornadoes tore through parts of the lower Midwest late on Friday night leaving a large path of destruction.
Brett Carlsen / Getty Images
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Getty Images
People search through a storm-damaged building on Saturday in Mayfield, Ky. Multiple tornadoes tore through parts of the lower Midwest and South late on Friday night, leaving a large path of destruction.

In Mayfield, Ky., 110 people were working at a candle factory when it was hit, Beshear said. "They rescued 40. There's at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it. Barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there. It'll be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it."

"This is one of the toughest nights in Kentucky history," Beshear said earlier Saturday. "We will make it through this. We will rebuild."

Martin Bolton (left) and shop owner Danny Wagner try to shut off a leaking gas meter on Saturday after his automobile repair shop was destroyed by a tornado in Mayfield, Ky.,
John Amis / Agence France Presse/AFP via Getty Images
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Agence France Presse/AFP via Getty Images
Martin Bolton (left) and shop owner Danny Wagner try to shut off a leaking gas meter on Saturday after his automobile repair shop was destroyed by a tornado in Mayfield, Ky.

The devastation in the Mayfield area goes beyond the factory, and several surrounding counties are pitching in with EMS help as the main emergency services hub in the town itself was in the direct line of the storm, local officials said Saturday. The water tower was hit too, leaving the town without water.

Kyanna Parsons-Perez, a worker at the factory, told NBC News Saturday morning that she was stuck in the rubble for two hours before being rescued.

"It was extremely scary," she said. "It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I've experienced in my entire life. ... I did not think I was going to make it at all."

Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett said Friday night's tornado event may surpass the 1974 Super Outbreak as the deadliest in the state's history.

The Emmanuel Baptist Church in Mayfield, Ky., was damaged as multiple tornadoes tore through the region, leaving a large path of destruction.
Brett Carlsen / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The Emmanuel Baptist Church in Mayfield, Ky., was damaged as multiple tornadoes tore through the region, leaving a large path of destruction.

Reports on social media show severe damage from Friday night's storm. A train derailed from the winds, damaging multiple homes. Two children in Hopkins County, Ky. were found alive in a bathtub that had been blown away from their house.

Ronnie Noel, Hopkins County's magistrate, told NPR he traveled to nearby Dawson Springs to survey the damage from the storms.

"Total devastation there. Lots of power lines, trees everywhere. Homes demolished," he said. "There's loss of life in Dawson [Springs] and it's just totally devastating for the whole county."

Six deaths confirmed at Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill.

In Edwardsville, Ill., just east of St. Louis, severe weather struck an Amazon warehouse, causing "catastrophic damage," the Edwardsville Police Department said in a statement on Facebook.

On Saturday evening, Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said responders saw that 150 yards of the building had collapsed.

They found that 45 people had escaped the building safety, one person had to be airlifted to a hospital and six people were killed.

"We're continuing to search the site for evidence of life and will continue recovery operations until all personnel are accounted for," the fire chief said. He said he did not have an exact count of how many people are still missing.

Whiteford said recovery would likely take three more days.

"This is a tragic day in Illinois history," Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Saturday evening. Pritzker said there were no additional injuries or deaths reported in Illinois aside from the Amazon facility.

Amazon said it was providing support to employees in the area.

Workers use equipment to remove a section of roof left on a heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill.
Jeff Roberson / AP
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AP
Workers use equipment to remove a section of roof left on a heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill.

"We're deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL," Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement to NPR.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the storm," Nantel said. "We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said on Twitter Saturday night, "We're heartbroken over the loss of our teammates."

"All of Edwardsville should know that the Amazon team is committed to supporting them and will be by their side through this crisis," Bezos said.

Storms also caused damage and deaths in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee

To the west of St. Louis, in St. Charles County, a woman was killed at her home and two others were hospitalized, according to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson. Further south, in Pemiscot County, a young child died and nine other people were taken to hospitals. Two others died on roads in Pemiscot County, which the Missouri State Highway Patrol is still investigating.

The extreme weather conditions also hit parts of Arkansas, where a nursing home was struck.

A large semi is flipped over and pushed against a building in Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday.
Dylan T. Lovan / AP
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AP
A large semi is flipped over and pushed against a building in Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday.

Judge Marvin Day from Craighead County, Ark., where the nursing home is located, told NPR that as of around midnight, one resident from the facility died and five were seriously injured.

"We're very thankful that there were not more people hurt and killed at the nursing home and the surrounding area. It was a pretty strong storm that hit us, but everybody's doing what they can do," Day said.

He added that the biggest issue as of Saturday morning was getting power back to many residents in the area.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said two people were killed in the state and there was "widespread property loss."

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee said there was "tremendous devastation in multiple locations."

Four people were confirmed killed across Tennessee, and one is still missing, according to Alex Pellom, chief of staff at the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Three people were killed in western Tennessee, two of them in Lake County and one in Obion County, according to the TEMA. Ten people were taken to hospitals and 64 had more minor injuries, Pellom said on Saturday evening.

Numerous trees and power lines are down and damage was reported across several counties in middle Tennessee.

In the parts of Tennessee that were hit by the storm, about 63,000 customers were without power on Saturday evening, Pellom said.

Emma Bowman contributed reporting.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.