Tornado victims are being remembered for their heroic acts and kindness.
The authorities in several states will resume efforts on Tuesday to identify dozens of people killed over the weekend in the powerful tornadoes that leveled a candle factory in Kentucky and destroyed neighborhoods as far away as Arkansas and Illinois.
Family members have been phoning loved ones and gathering in living rooms across the American heartland, mourning those who had not survived the storms’ swift, furious rampage. At least 74 people have been confirmed dead in Kentucky alone, where the swath of destruction was so wide that deaths were tallied in eight counties.
“Thousands of homes are damaged if not entirely destroyed,” Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters on Monday. “It may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction.”
Deaths have also been reported in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Illinois, where six people were killed at an Amazon warehouse in the city of Edwardsville. But the greatest devastation was in Kentucky, where 11 of the 15 victims in Bowling Green lived on a single street.
In Mayfield, Ky., Robert Daniel, a veteran corrections officer at the county jail, was keeping a watchful eye on seven inmates assigned to work at the candle factory when the emergency sirens went off. He moved quickly to direct the inmates in his care, along with other workers, to a room with a heavy door designated as a “safety area.”
“He led many people to safety,” said Alonzo Daniel, a younger brother of Robert’s. “When they turned around, they did not see him anymore.”
After Robert Daniel’s body was found under the shattered building, Alonzo Daniel mustered the courage to call all seven of his brother’s children and other relatives to share the news. “I had to tell them, ‘Your daddy is no longer here.'”
Other victims in Kentucky included Bobby Spradling Jr., a 50-year-old carpenter from Mayfield, whose niece said he bought her school supplies when she could not afford them, and Brian Crick, a 43-year-old district judge for Muhlenberg and McLean Counties who was an elder at his Presbyterian church in Sacramento.
“If something like this happened to someone else,” said Dana Brantley, a close family friend, “he would have been leading the cleanup, he would have his work gloves on, be digging through the rubble, out with his saw helping. That’s just who he was.”
A tornado outbreak tore through six states on Friday night: Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.
The tornadoes were part of a weather system that also caused substantial snowfall across parts of the upper Midwest and western Great Lakes.
The precise death toll is unclear.
Amid a fluctuating death toll, the greatest loss of life was unquestionably in Kentucky, where the confirmed number of dead grew on Monday to 74, including at least eight at a candle factory in Mayfield that was demolished. Gov. Andy Beshear said that he expected the number would rise as crews search the ruins and that there were as many as 109 people who were still unaccounted for in the state.
Elsewhere in Kentucky, seven children were killed in Bowling Green, including two infants and a 4-year-old, according to a release by the coroner’s office in Warren County. In the tiny town of Bremen, the youngest victim was 5 months old.
In Illinois, a tornado caused the walls and roof of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville to collapse, killing six people.
At least four people in Tennessee and two in Arkansas were killed, and deaths were also reported in Missouri.
The White House announced that President Biden would travel to Fort Campbell, Ky., on Wednesday, and then visit Mayfield and Dawson Springs, parts of which were flattened by the tornadoes.
The tornadoes, which included the largest in Kentucky’s history, mangled many communities beyond recognition, and officials cautioned that recovery would be slow.
Federal and officials in Illinois said on Monday that they would investigate the collapse of the Amazon delivery depot in Edwardsville. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a news conference that a state investigation into whether the building was constructed according to building codes was ongoing.
Amazon officials have defended their safety procedures.
Did climate change play a role?
Scientists have been able to draw links between a warming planet and hurricanes, heat waves and droughts, attributing the likelihood that climate change played a role in individual isolated events. The same can’t be said for tornadoes.
“For a lot of our questions about climate change and tornadoes, the answer is we don’t know,” said Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Although severe tornadoes are rare in December, Friday’s cluster was not unprecedented. Similar destructive storms have hit parts of the United States in December in 2000, 2015, 2018 and 2019.
It’s the latest challenge for Kentucky.
The aftermath of the tornadoes has compounded what was already a challenging year in Kentucky.
In February, a powerful ice storm downed trees and cut off power to 150,000 people in eastern Kentucky. In July, a flash flood left people stranded in their homes. Autumn brought a frightening spike in the coronavirus that made the pandemic “as bad in Kentucky as it has ever been,” Mr. Beshear said.
The agonizing aftermath of tornadoes that killed at least 74 people in Kentucky has compounded what was already a challenging year in the state.
In February, a powerful ice storm downed trees and cut off power to 150,000 people in eastern Kentucky. In July, a flash flood left people stranded in their homes. Autumn brought a frightening spike in the coronavirus that made the pandemic “as bad in Kentucky as it has ever been,” Gov. Andy Beshear told residents as intensive care units filled and the death count climbed.
“And now we have this,” Mr. Beshear said during a disaster briefing on Monday morning, his voice freighted by the exhaustion and emotional toll of the latest crisis he has had to contend with since taking office two years ago.
“We’ll push through all of it because we don’t have a choice,” Mr. Beshear said. “And we’re strong enough to do it.”
The tornadoes, which included the largest in the state’s history, mangled many communities beyond recognition. In a state already challenged by some of the highest poverty rates in the United States, officials cautioned that recovery would be slow.
“This will go on for years,” said Michael Dossett, director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.
The devastation is staggering, but it also reflects a magnified version of a familiar story across the country as recurring disasters — many linked to the rippling consequences of a changing climate — are testing the bandwidth of state officials in ways they never have before.
At the center of this struggle in Kentucky is Mr. Beshear, whose connection to the disaster is especially personal. Among the hardest-hit communities is Dawson Springs, a town of just 2,600 people where his father was born and his grandfather owned a funeral home.
Mr. Beshear is two years into his first term and a somewhat unlikely presence as a Democrat leading a deeply conservative state. In a time of bitter division, he has navigated the state through the treacherous partisanship of mask mandates and vaccine requirements, as well as the upheaval and inflamed racial tensions stoked by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville last year.
The governor noted the toll of compounding crises.
“If dealing with all this isn’t enough, we have a pandemic,” he said. “It’s continuing, and it’s continuing to take lives of Kentuckians.”
The deadly tornadoes that pummeled six states on Friday, killing more than 80 people and leaving dozens missing, came at the end of a year of compounding extreme weather events, from heat waves and hurricanes to flooding and wildfires.
Scientists have been able to draw links between a warming planet and hurricanes, heat waves and droughts, attributing the likelihood that climate change played a role in individual isolated events. The same can’t be said for tornadoes yet.
“This is the hardest phenomenon to connect to climate change,” said Michael Tippett, an associate professor of applied physics and mathematics at Columbia University who studies extreme weather and climate.
Even as scientists are discovering trends around tornadoes and their behavior, it remains unclear the role that climate change plays. “For a lot of our questions about climate change and tornadoes, the answer is we don’t know,” said Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. “We don’t see evidence for changes in average annual occurrence or intensity over the last 40 to 60 years.”
What causes a tornado?
Tornadoes form inside large rotating thunderstorms and the ingredients have to be just right. Tornadoes occur when there is a perfect mix of temperature, moisture profile and wind profile.
When the air is unstable, cold air is pushed over warmer humid air, creating an updraft as the warm air rises. When a wind’s speed or direction changes over a short distance, the air inside the clouds can start to spin. If the air column begins spinning vertically and rotates near the ground, it can intensify the friction on Earth’s surface, accelerating the air inward, forming a tornado.
How are they measured?
Like hurricanes and earthquakes, tornadoes are rated on a scale. The Enhanced Fujita, or EF, scale, runs from 0 to 5.
The tornado that traveled across Northeast Arkansas, Tennessee and western Kentucky over the weekend was estimated to be three-quarters of a mile wide with wind speeds that peaked between 158 and 206 miles per hour, giving it a EF rank of at least 3.
Because it’s challenging to measure the winds in a tornado directly, surveyors usually evaluate tornadoes by their level of damage to different structures.
For instance, they may look to see if the damage is limited to missing roof shingles or whether entire sections of roofs or walls are missing. Based on the level of damage, scientists then reverse-engineer the wind speeds and assign a tornado a rating on the scale.
Have tornadoes changed over the years?
Researchers say that in recent years tornadoes seem to be occurring in greater “clusters,” and that the region known as tornado alley in the Great Plains, where most tornadoes occur, appears to be shifting eastward. The overall number of tornadoes annually is holding steady around 1,200.
Tornadoes in the United States in December are unusual. They typically occur in the spring. Friday’s tornadoes may have occurred because the wind shear was high (it tends to peak in the winter) and the weather was warmer than normal. This year, the region has experienced an uncharacteristically warm December, and temperatures in Arkansas and Kansas on Friday were in the 70s and 80s.
Is climate change the cause?
The ingredients that give rise to tornadoes include warm, moist air at ground level; cool dry air higher up; and wind shear, which is the change in wind speed or direction. Each of these factors may be affected differently by climate change.
As the planet warms and the climate changes, “we don’t think they are all going to go in the same direction,” said Dr. Brooks of NOAA. For instance, overall temperature and humidity, which provide energy in the air, may rise with a warming climate, but wind shear may not.
“If there is not enough shear to make something rotate, it doesn’t matter how strong the energy is.” he said. “If there is all kind of wind shear, but you don’t have a storm, you won’t get a tornado, either.”
Although we know that climate change may be playing a role in making some storms more powerful, the complexity of tornadoes means that it is hard to extend that connection with certainty, especially for an individual event.
Scale is everything
A tornado’s relatively small size also makes it harder to model, the primary tool that scientists use when attributing extreme weather events to climate change. “We are working at such small scales that the model you would use to do the attribution studies just can’t capture the phenomenon,” Dr. Brooks said.
A shorter, spottier, historical record
The tornado record is still sparse compared with other types of events. One possible reason is that tornadoes are relatively local weather events. Tornado records have largely been based on someone seeing a tornado and reporting it to the National Weather Service. This means that smaller tornadoes that occur in rural areas and do not cause property damage or injury may not be reported.
“We are pretty sure we know how many hurricanes make landfall in the United States each year,” Dr. Brooks said. “With tornadoes, we may not know how many occurred yesterday and last night.”
Another kind of link
A 2015 paper found that La Nina conditions, like those we are experiencing now and which will most likely prolong the Western drought, are more favorable for tornado activity. Dr. Tippett, one of the study’s authors, said that the observable relationship between the two was modest, though a “little less caveated” than the relationship between tornadoes and climate change.
Still, Dr. Tippett said that, based on all the evidence, computer modeling showed that the environmental conditions favorable to tornadoes might increase in the future. “Our confidence is low, but the evidence points to the same direction.”
Federal and state officials said on Monday that they would investigate the collapse of an Amazon delivery depot in Edwardsville, Ill., that was struck by a tornado on Friday, killing six people.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois said at a news conference that a state investigation into whether the building was constructed according to building codes was ongoing, while federal workplace safety regulators said they had opened an investigation after the collapse.
Company officials have defended their safety procedures.
At the news conference, an Amazon spokeswoman, Kelly Nantel, said the company believed that the building was constructed properly, despite the catastrophic damage. “Obviously we want to go back and look at every aspect of this,” she said.
Mr. Pritzker said he was already speaking with lawmakers about whether the state’s building codes should be updated “based upon the climate change we are seeing all around us.” He added, “That is something we are deeply concerned about, to make sure code is where it ought to be.”
The federal investigation will be undertaken by the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has had compliance officers on the ground since Saturday, said Scott Allen, a regional spokesman for the agency. He said the agency had six months “to complete its investigation, issue citations and propose monetary penalties if violations of workplace safety and or health regulations are found.”
John Felton, an Amazon logistics executive, said at the news conference with the Illinois governor that “everything that we have seen, it was all procedures were followed correctly.” He said the 46 people in the delivery depot at the time that the tornado hit acted “heroically,” using phones, bullhorns and other tools to move as many people to safety as possible.
Thirty-nine people sheltered in a space on the north side of the building that was “nearly undamaged,” Mr. Felton said, and seven people congregated on the south side of the facility, which fell directly in the tornado’s path.
The shelter spaces were not separate rooms, but were interior locations away from windows and other hazards, Ms. Nantel said.
Mr. Pritzker said the risk of flooding in the industrial area where the building sits prohibited the construction of basement structures that could have provided better protection. He said there was an “ongoing look” at the initial confusion over how many people were at the building, which was staffed by many contractors who were not required to scan their badges when they entered the building at the end of their shifts.
The recovery efforts are just beginning for those in the path of the devastating tornadoes that tore through six states on Friday night. Local and national volunteers and aid groups are prepared to rescue and feed and give shelter to those who have been affected by the storms, which killed at least 90 people.
The tornado outbreak created almost unfathomable levels of destruction across Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, the authorities said. From a flattened candle factory in Kentucky to a ravaged Amazon warehouse in Illinois, the storms showed no mercy for those who were in its path. Kentucky in particular was hit hard by the storms.
Here are some ways you can help relief efforts.
Before you give, do your research.
Before you make a donation, especially to a lesser-known organization, you should do some research to make sure it is reputable. Sites like Charity Navigator and Guidestar grade nonprofits based on transparency and effectiveness. The Internal Revenue Service also allows you to search its database to find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. And if you suspect an organization or individual of committing fraud, you can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, part of the Justice Department.
Here are some local groups that are pitching in.
Blood Assurance, which collects blood donations across its locations in the South, is asking people to make appointments because of a “critical need” for supply in Tennessee and Kentucky.
For people in the area of Bowling Green, Ky., the Bowling Green Fire Department is seeking volunteers to help with recovery efforts. Send the department a Facebook message with your name, contact information and the type of assistance you can provide.
Brother’s Brother Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based organization that provides disaster relief, is accepting donations so it can donate to food banks in Arkansas and Kentucky. It is also sending items to victims and emergency crews in affected areas.
Kentucky Branded, a clothing store in Lexington, is donating all of the proceeds from the sales of its “Pray for Kentucky” T-shirt to communities affected by the tornadoes. The shirt costs $20.
The Kentucky State Police in Mayfield are asking interested volunteers to call 270-331-1979.
Taylor County Bank in Campbellsville, Ky., is accepting donations by mail to its fund for tornado victims. Its mailing address is P.O. Box 200 Campbellsville, Ky., 42719.
The Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, created by Gov. Andy Beshear, is collecting donations for victims in the western portion of the state.
Some national organizations are helping out.
AmeriCares, a health-focused relief and development organization, has sent an emergency response team to Kentucky and has offered assistance to health care facilities in several states. The organization is accepting donations to help fund these efforts.
CARE, an organization that works with impoverished communities, is collecting money to provide food, cash and clean water to the tornado victims.
Convoy of Hope, an organization that feeds the hungry, is asking for donations to help the survivors across the affected states.
Global Empowerment Mission, a disaster-relief organization, has partnered with local groups and is raising money to help its team on the ground in Kentucky.
GoFundMe has created a centralized hub with verified fund-raisers to help those affected by the tornadoes. It will be updated with new fund-raisers as they are verified.
International Medical Corps, an organization that provides emergency medical services, is raising funds to give people shelter and essential items.
The Salvation Army is soliciting donations to help tornado victims in Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Team Rubicon, a disaster-relief organization, is raising money to help its team of military veterans and volunteers clear roads in Western Kentucky.
The United Way of Kentucky is asking for donations to provide support services for families in the state who were affected by the tornadoes.