US president Joe Biden declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky after a swarm of deadly tornadoes hit the state on Friday, as representatives of a candle factory destroyed by a twister said far fewer people may have died than previously feared.
Biden had previously declared the storms a federal emergency and the move to designate the storms a federal disaster paves the way for additional aid, as thousands face housing, food, water and power shortages.
It follows a formal request from Kentucky governor Andy Beshear who said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history.
Beshear had initially said the death toll could exceed 100 after twisters tore through the US midwest and south on Friday night.
Dozens of people in several counties in the state are still believed to have died in the storms, but Beshear said on Sunday afternoon the death toll might be as low as 50, according to the Associated Press.
“We are praying that maybe original estimates of those we have lost were wrong. If so, it’s going to be pretty wonderful,” the governor said.
Among the 110 people who were at the candle factory, eight have been confirmed dead and eight others remained missing, said Bob Ferguson, a spokesperson for Mayfield Consumer Products, which owns the factory. He said 90 people had been located, a figure that authorities were trying to confirm.
“There were some early reports that as many as 70 could be dead in the factory. One is too many, but we thank God that the number is turning out to be far, far fewer,” Ferguson said, adding that rescue teams were still searching for the eight who remained unaccounted for.
It was unclear how many factory workers Beshear was counting in the latest death toll estimates.
“We’re still getting information in on the candle factory. The owner has been in contact and believes he has some different information. We are trying verify it. If so, it may be a better situation and the miracle we were hoping for,” Beshear told a news conference on Sunday evening.
Rescue workers continued to scour debris for survivors and many people without power, water or even a roof over their heads salvaged what they could two days after disaster struck.
While Kentucky was hardest hit, six workers were killed at Amazon.com Inc warehouse in Illinois after the plant buckled under the force of the tornado, including one cargo driver who died in the bathroom, where many workers said they had been directed to shelter.
A nursing home was struck in Arkansas, causing one of that state’s two deaths. Four were reported dead in Tennessee and two in Missouri.
Nowhere suffered as much as Mayfield, a community of about 10,000 in the south-western corner of Kentucky, where the large twisters also destroyed the fire and police stations. The governor said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history.
“The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together,” Beshear said, noting that one tornado tore across 227 miles (365 km) of terrain, almost all of that in Kentucky.
A vast storm front moved across the Mississippi basin and parts of the US south-east and midwest on Friday night, spawning more than 30 tornadoes.
Spring is the main season for tornadoes and this latest event was very unusual coming in December, when colder weather normally limits tornadoes, said Victor Gensini, an extreme weather researcher at Northern Illinois University.
Asked if he thought the intensity of the storms was related to climate crisis, president Biden said: “All I know is that the intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet. The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point.”
Illinois was hit, too, and six people were killed in the collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, with another injured worker airlifted to a hospital, fire chief James Whiteford said.
In addition, so far four people have been reported killed in Tennessee, two in Arkansas and two in Missouri as well as the high toll in Kentucky.
Kyanna Parsons-Perez, who was at the candle factory in Mayfield, said she felt the building was making her and her co-workers “rock from one side to the other” right before it collapsed.
Parsons-Perez was stuck for three hours in the rubble, and documented part of it in a livestream on Facebook in which her co-workers can be heard crying in fear.
Sitting in the hospital, she told the Guardian how a gust of wind suddenly changed everything. “My ears started popping and I felt my body swaying,” she said of the moments right before the building collapsed.
She became very scared upon learning that she was buried under. “When I found out it was an air conditioner on me and five people on the debris on top of me is when I got scared,” she said.
The storm was so powerful that a photograph from a tornado-damaged home in Kentucky was found almost 130 miles away in Indiana.
The US uniquely experiences more than 1,200 tornadoes annually, more than four times the number in other countries around the world where they occur, combined, according to experts.