Death Toll In Kentucky Soars Above 70 In Aftermath Of Tornado Outbreak

Saturday, December 11, 2021 - by AccuWeather
With the death toll eclipsing 70 in Kentucky alone, 2021 is now the deadliest year for tornadoes since 2011. Powerful twisters ripped through swaths of the South and Midwest, leaving several more dead in Arkansas and at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois.

A major nighttime tornado outbreak erupted across an area stretching from the South to the Midwest late Friday night and into the early-morning hours on Saturday. Tornadoes have killed more than 70 in Kentucky, the governor said, and police in Illinois confirmed multiple fatalities at an Amazon warehouse after a tornado struck, collapsing a wall the size of a football field and trapping workers.
And in Arkansas, at least one person was reported dead after a nursing home sustained a direct hit from a tornado.

Officials believe at least one massive tornado traversed four states, including Kentucky.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency late Friday and has asked President Joe Biden for federal assistance, calling the devastating weather event, "I believe, the deadliest tornado system to ever run through Kentucky. ... The primary tornado was on the ground continuously for over 200 miles, something we have never seen before."

Beshear said in a press conference near midday that officials are certain that the death toll in Kentucky is "north of 70" and that "it may, in fact, end up exceeding 100 before the day is done."

Biden said he's been briefed on the search-and-rescue operations. "To lose a loved one in a storm like this is an unimaginable tragedy," Biden said on Twitter. "We’re working with Governors to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.” 

There were 14 tornado deaths in 2021 prior to the outbreak Friday night into Saturday, meaning that with more than 70 fatalities resulting from this latest devastation, this is the deadliest tornado year since 2011, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist and Senior Weather Editor Jesse Ferrell.

Tornado warnings were issued for several counties in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois Friday evening and into the overnight hours.

Nearly every mile on a 187 mile stretch of I-70 was under a tornado warning at some point during the outbreak - spanning from eastern Columbia, MO to St. Elmo, IL.

Following building warmth and humidity, the lid came off the atmosphere Friday evening as a cold front moved in from the west and lead to explosive thunderstorm development. In all, from eastern Texas into Indiana, over 16 million people across 9 different states found themselves in an area under a tornado alert Friday night into Saturday morning.

Just before 7 p.m. CST, a large and extremely dangerous tornado was confirmed by spotters near Greenfield, or near Jonesboro, in the northeastern corner of Arkansas. In the town of Monette, 25 miles from Jonesboro, Region 8 News reported at least one death after the Monette Manor Nursing Home sustained damage associated with a violent and dangerous tornado that had tracked through the area.

Craighead County Judge Marvin Day also reported "significant injuries" at the nursing home, with at least 20 people trapped and 5 people seriously injured, according to Region 8 News. The Region 8 newsroom was later forced to take shelter as the storms tracked through Jonesboro.

Brick homes were blown apart by the tornado in nearby Trumann, Arkansas, according to AccuWeather's Bill Wadell, with power lines down across the town. Buildings were crushed in Leachville, Arkansas, where at least one death was reported.

"I'm normally not scared of storms," said Molly Johnson, whose home in Leachville, Arkansas, collapsed during the severe weather. "You could feel the popping and feel the house cave [in]," she said, adding that she and her college-age son climbed through trees and stepped over live power lines before reaching a neighbor's home where they sought shelter. "It was crazy. The trailer next to me is in the trees."

A tornado emergency was also issued for Mayfield, Kentucky, where a radar-confirmed violent tornado made a direct hit. The twister trapped multiple people inside a candle factory, and fires were reported across the town. At a news briefing early Saturday morning, Beshear said, “There were about 110 people in it at the time that the tornado hit it," according to The Associated Press. "We believe our death toll from this event will exceed 50 Kentuckians and probably end up 70 to 100.”

Kyana Parsons-Perez, a factory employee, was trapped under five feet of debris for at least two hours until rescuers managed to free her. In an interview with NBC's Today show, she said it was the “absolutely the most terrifying” event she had ever experienced. “I did not think I was going to make it at all.”

“It’s very hard, really tough," Beshear said, adding, "we’re praying for each and every one of those families... This is one of the worst nights in Kentucky history."

Several houses on Main Street in Mayfield were reported destroyed to the foundation or with significant damage. The county's emergency medical services department was also hit by the tornado, leaving the area without ambulances and requesting outside help. Some roads were impassable throughout Friday night into Saturday morning on the outskirts of the town due to debris.

The governor activated the Kentucky Guard and State Police as part of his state of emergency order.

The National Weather Service in Louisville, Kentucky, confirmed that a strong tornado with “at least EF2 damage pounded the city of Bowling Green early Saturday. The twister struck the city with winds of at least 120 mph.

Western Kentucky University is located in Bowling Green and while school officials confirmed no injuries were reported on campus, they did report one death, that of a student's relative off campus. Western Kentucky’s President Tim Caboni initially said a student had died but further information revealed it was a relative of a student.

“Since the early morning hours, teams of our staff have been with us on campus working to assess damage, establish temporary power, restore campus networks and phone lines and restart basically operations," Caboni said. He added the primary structures on campus were largely spared from significant damage. The school’s commencement has been postponed.

Also early Saturday, a train derailed and struck several houses near Earlington and Barnsley, Kentucky, around the time a tornado passed through the area. People were reported trapped in their homes in Bowling Green due to the tornado, with a fire breaking out at the National Corvette Museum and multiple injuries reported.

Another train derailment occurred near Elberfield, Indiana, where a tornado struck.

In Edwardsville, Illinois, two people were killed when a tornado ripped off the roof and a wall about the length of a football field collapsed at an Amazon distribution center Friday night, Edwardsville Police Chief Mike Fillback told The Associated Press. Workers were trapped in the building as emergency responders arrived and evacuated up to 100 people. An employee at the warehouse told a local news station that he saw people under debris and cars tossed into a retention pond.

Police said the tornado, which touched down around 8:30 p.m., caused "catastrophic damage" to the facility. Those at the scene reported almost half the building appeared to be destroyed.

Police said the tornado caused "catastrophic damage to a significant portion" of the Amazon facility.

Multiple people were reported trapped across Kenton, Tennessee, as the National Weather Service observed 6-12 houses totaled. According to a local news station, three deaths were reported across northwestern Tennessee due to two separate tornadoes. On Saturday morning, tornado sirens sounded across the Nashville area two tornadoes tore through, possibly causing a building collapse but largely staying out of downtown.

Also, the National Weather Service declared a tornado emergency for parts of southeastern Missouri, including Steele, Caruthersville and Hayi. As the storms moved across the state, employees at the National Weather Service office in St. Louis, Missouri, briefly took shelter as a tornado reportedly tracked south of the office. Many parts of the St. Louis metro area were under tornado warnings as the storm came through. One person died and two others were injured in building collapses near the towns of Defiance and New Melle, both just a few miles from the weather service office, the AP reported.

Power outages stretched across eight states with more than 400,000 customers without service as of Saturday morning in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, according to PowerOutage. Tennessee was the hardest hit, with more than 131,000 losing power.

Some of the same locations hit hard by these recent tornadoes just dealt with severe weather late this past weekend and earlier this week.

The three-year average from 2018 to 2021 for tornadoes in December across the U.S. is 47, according to the SPC. Some Decembers are more active in terms of tornadoes compared to others. In 2018, there were 66 tornadoes reported, compared to just 18 in 2020.

As the remainder of Saturday plays out, the severe weather threat is not expected to be as robust as the one Friday night that brought devastation across Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky, leaving many displaced, missing and multiple dead.

“The potent cold front that was responsible for these deadly tornadoes will continue to move east into Saturday afternoon,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Nicole LoBiondo said. “The threat for severe weather will diminish, but a few isolated severe storms are possible across central Alabama, eastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia.”

A few gusty thunderstorms are possible with the main threat being strong winds that could bring localized power outages and damage, she added. The main wind threat with this front will be farther north in the northeast where winds are expected to howl from the Blue Ridges mountains to down east Maine. The strongest wind gusts will be around the Great Lakes where gusts from 50 to 70 mph are likely.

Earlier Friday, cities from Little Rock to Monticello saw a new daily high temperature. Most places that set a new record saw the temperature rise to the high 70s, though a few like Monticello and Pine Bluff broke into the 80s before the front arrived.

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