Updated Dec 11, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Kentucky governor: Death toll could exceed 100 from overnight tornadoes

Heavy damage is seen downtown after a tornado swept through the area.
Heavy damage is seen in downtown Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 11 after a tornado swept through the area. Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The death toll may exceed 100 after tornadoes tore through western Kentucky on Friday, according to Gov. Andy Beshear, who called it "the worst, most devastating, most deadly tornado event" in the state's history.

The latest: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott approved a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Saturday to deploy resources to help in the search and rescue efforts in western Kentucky, according to a statement from the governor's office.

  • “The state of Texas stands ready to assist our friends in Kentucky as they continue their response and recovery efforts in the wake of deadly tornadoes that shook the western portion of their state overnight,” said Abbott, who activated 10 Texas A&M Task Force 1 personnel along with a supply of equipment.

Driving the news: "This is likely to be the most severe tornado outbreak in our state's history," Beshear said on Saturday.

  • Radar imagery picked up tornado debris — pieces of homes and businesses —lofted to at least 30,000 feet by the extreme winds, and a weather station on the ground near Mayfield, Kentucky, recorded a wind gust of 107 mph at the time the tornado struck.
  • More than two dozen tornadoes reportedly touched down across six states, which, in addition to Kentucky, were Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.

State of play: Dozens are expected to have died in Mayfield after at least 110 people were in a candle manufacturing factory at the time the tornado hit, per WLKY.

  • At least one person also died in Edwardsville, Illinois, after severe weather hit an Amazon facility there, AP reports.
  • Beshear early Saturday morning declared a state of emergency and activated Kentucky National Guard and Kentucky State Police to help with rescue efforts, per WLKY.

President Biden on Saturday issued an emergency declaration in Kentucky and ordered federal assistance to support recovery efforts after a tornado tore through the state killing at least 70 people.

  • Biden has been in touch throughout the day with governors of the states impacted by severe weather, and "asked each governor what his state needs," according to the White House.
  • He also told governors "to call him directly if there is any federal support they need."

The big picture: The Kentucky tornado event is likely to rank as the deadliest single tornado event since 2011 in Joplin, Missouri, in which 158 people died.

  • Storm surveys will be conducted to determine the exact path length, but if the tornado remained on the ground the entire time, it could have tracked for about 250 miles, which would make it the longest track tornado on record in the U.S. 
  • That the tornadoes hit at night, when people tend to have more difficulty receiving warnings and cannot physically see a tornado barreling toward them, likely played a role in causing so many fatalities.

Thought bubble from Axios' Andrew Freedman: The severe weather outbreak was one of the worst on record in the U.S., and resulted from a clash of warm, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico and colder, drier air from the north.

  • In addition, strong, veering winds with height, a phenomenon known as wind shear, helped cause individual thunderstorms to spin.
  • While all weather today occurs in an atmosphere altered by human-caused climate change, but there is no clear consensus showing that tornadoes will become more intense or frequent as the world warms — in fact, they may become less frequent.
  • There are studies showing that tornado outbreaks, however, could be more severe when they do occur, with more twisters per outbreak than in a pre-warming world.

Axios' Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.

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