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Rescuers hunt for survivors after deadly tornadoes rip through several states

“We knew it was bad, but not till the sun started coming up did we look at it and saw matchsticks,” Mayfield, Kentucky, Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said.

Desperate search and rescue efforts continued Sunday morning as the extent of the damage from catastrophic tornadoes that ripped through Kentucky and other states became clear.

At least 29 people died as devastating twisters destroyed a candle factory in Kentucky, battered a nursing home in Arkansas, leveled an Amazon distribution center in Illinois and wreaked havoc in Tennessee and Missouri, according to an NBC News tally. The figure is expected to rise as cleanup efforts continue.

In Kentucky alone, 15 people were confirmed dead by late Saturday, including a 3-year-old child in Graves County. 

Gov. Andy Beshear said the tornado event was the deadliest ever to hit Kentucky, estimating that 70 to 100 people may have been killed.

“There's not a camera lens big enough to show the path of absolute destruction. People have lost everything,” Beshear told Chuck Todd on NBC News' “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“We’re talking in the rescue effort of going door to door — there aren't doors,” he said.

With his voice cracking slightly, he added: “We are resilient, and we will rebuild.”

Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to Kentucky and joined Beshear for a news conference Sunday afternoon.

Officials announced that President Joe Biden had approved an emergency declaration, which frees up federal resources to help the state's recovery efforts. FEMA has deployed teams to help assess and manage the situation, particularly as power, water, fuel and housing are in critically short supply.

"Thousands of people are without homes. We don't have an exact number of houses because right now we're trying to count people," Beshear said. "And that's where we have our main focus."

Kentucky State Police found 12 people dead in Bremen, Trooper Matt Sudduth confirmed Sunday morning. Search and rescue crews were still working to get through the debris; teams from other parts of the state came in Sunday to offer relief to those who have yet to get a break.

"The Kentucky State Police is working with multiple other agencies in efforts to preserve as much life as possible," Sudduth said. "The cold temperatures last night are concerning, but efforts continue. The damage being so widespread, it just takes time."

In one of the hardest-hit communities, Mayfield, a city of about 10,000, residents shared devastating images of devastated homes and trees ripped from the ground. Twisted metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets.

A man bikes Saturday through Mayfield, Ky., as the town wakes up to debris and devastation. Cheney Orr / Reuters

The “town is gone,” Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan told NBC’s “Nightly News” after authorities said the police and fire stations were also destroyed.  

“We knew it was bad, but not till the sun started coming up did we look at it and saw matchsticks,” she said. “Our hearts are broken.”  

Crews continued to hunt for survivors in the wreckage of a candle factory, where 110 people were working overnight Friday when the storm hit.

By Sunday, eight people had died, with nine still unaccounted for, authorities said. Beshear said Sunday that it was still too early to confirm numbers for the factory.

“We had to, at times, crawl over casualties to get to live victims,” Jeremy Creason, the city’s fire chief and EMS director, told The Associated Press.

Daryl Johnson said his sister Janine Johnson was working inside the factory when the tornado hit. He had been trying to reach her since then.

“I’m prepared for the worst,” he said. “I’m hoping for the best, but I’m preparing for the worst.” 

Kyanna Parsons-Perez, who turned 40 on Saturday, said she was trapped under the debris for at least two hours before rescue teams pulled her out.

“I think the lights went out, and then we did a rock, rock, rock ... boom, and everything fell down on us,” she said. 

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Her colleague Jessaundra Jackson, who was not at the factory when the tornado hit, went back early the next day to help crews pull people out. 

“I could hear people screaming for help, but you can’t see them,” said Jackson, 33. “You couldn’t see them. ... You can just hear them.”

An aerial view of the damage at a candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday after devastating tornadoes ripped through several states.Cheney Orr / Reuters

In Illinois, at least six people were killed when a 100-foot section of a wall partly collapsed at an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, authorities said.

Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos said the news was “tragic” in a tweet Saturday. “We’re heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there,” he said.

Elsewhere, four people died in Tennessee and two were killed in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed. Two more people died in Missouri.