US rescuers desperately searched for survivors on Sunday after tornadoes killed at least 94 and left towns in ruin, with emergency crews racing against time to find dozens still missing from a collapsed Kentucky factory.
President Joe Biden called the wave of twisters, including one that travelled more than 200 miles (320 kilometres), “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history.
“It’s a tragedy,” a shaken Biden, who pledged support for the affected states, said in televised comments. “And we still don’t know how many lives are lost and the full extent of the damage.”
With the death toll all but certain to rise, dozens of search and rescue officers were helping stunned citizens across the US heartland sift through the rubble of their homes and businesses overnight.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said on Sunday raised the state’s death toll by 10, to more than 80 and said he expected the tally to rise. “That number is going to exceed more than 100,” Beshear told CNN.
“This is the deadliest tornado event we have ever had.” The extent of the destruction is devastating, he said. “I have places that are gone. I mean, just gone.”
The tornadoes tore through the US Midwest and South on Friday night leaving a trail of death and destruction in its path stretching hundreds of miles.
In the town of Dawson Springs alone, with a population of about 2,700, the list of missing people spanned eight pages, Beshear said. “The massive, widespread damage makes rescue efforts challenging.”
But nowhere suffered as much as the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky, where the powerful twisters, which weather forecasters say are unusual in winter, destroyed a candle factory – killing many – as well the fire and police stations.
Across the town of 10,000 people in the state’s southwestern corner, homes were flattened or missing roofs, giant trees had been uprooted and street signs were mangled.
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from central Mayfield, said “there is destruction as far as the eye can see” in the town.
“This is a very tight-knit town. People are coming from the outskirts offering whatever sort of assistance they can provide,” she said.
Jeremy Creason, Mayfield’s fire chief and emergency services director, said rescuers had to crawl over the dead to get to the living.
Mayfield resident Jamel Alubahr, 25, said his three-year-old nephew died and his sister was in the hospital with a skull fracture after being stuck under the rubble of their home.
“It all happened in the snap of a finger,” said Alubahr, who is now staying with another sister in Mayfield.
The genesis of the tornado outbreak was a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a supercell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas. That storm moved from Arkansas and Missouri and into Tennessee and Kentucky.
William Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University, told Al Jazeera from Ames, Iowa that before the tornadoes came there was a very intense system that developed near Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean which is called Kona Low. He said “that helped to allow our jet stream to buckle”.
“So we had a very strong flow coming from southwest to northeast across the middle of the United States and this allowed for a very long period of strong south winds that were able to move a lot of warm air and very humid air from the Gulf of Mexico in two locations surprisingly far north for December,” Gallus said.
If early reports are confirmed, the twister “will likely go down perhaps as one of the longest track violent tornadoes in United States history,” said Victor Gensini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University.
The storm was all the more remarkable because it came in December, when normally colder weather limits tornadoes.
President Biden told reporters he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency to examine what role climate change may have played in fueling the storms.
As Americans grappled with the immensity of the disaster, condolences poured in, with Pope Francis saying he is praying “for the victims of the tornado that hit Kentucky”.
Biden’s Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in a break from tense bilateral relations, said his country “shares in the grief” of those who lost loved ones and expressed hope that victims quickly overcome the tornadoes’ consequences.