In Kentucky alone, the death toll is at least 80 people and is going to exceed 100, Governor Andy Beshear said today – making it the deadliest tornado event in the state’s history.
“I know people can see the visuals, but that goes on for 12 blocks or more in some of these places. And it’s going to take us time,” he said.
“You think you would go door-to-door to check on people and see if they’re okay. There are no doors.
“The question is, is somebody in the rubble of thousands upon thousands of structures? I mean, it is devastating,” he added.
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mr Beshear confirmed a three-year-old in Graves County and a five-year-old in Muhlenberg County were among the dead.
Arkansas officials have reported two weather-related deaths; Tennessee has confirmed four; Illinois has reported six; and Missouri two.
Kentucky has not released an official death toll.
Across the region, destroyed buildings, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets in hard-hit areas, making it tougher for rescuers trying to reach communities left with no working phone or power lines.
More than 50,000 customers in Kentucky were without power as of Sunday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.US.
Tornadoes or strong winds collapsed an occupied candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon warehouse in western Illinois, and a nursing home in Arkansas, killing people in each community and leaving responders scrambling to rescue others.
More than 30 tornadoes were reported in six states.
Meteorologists said a stretch of more than 400 kilometres from Arkansas to Kentucky might have been hit by one violent, long-track twister.
According Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, the severe storms are the “new normal” in an era of climate change.
“The effects we are seeing of climate change are the crisis of our generation,” Ms Criswell said.
“We’re taking a lot of efforts at FEMA to work with communities to help reduce the impacts that we’re seeing from these severe weather events and help to develop systemwide projects that can help protect communities.”
Despite her assertion, scientific research on climate change’s influence on tornadoes is not as robust as for other types of extreme weather like droughts, floods and even hurricanes.
The short and small scale of tornadoes, along with an extremely spotty and unreliable historical record for them, makes assessing their relationships to long-term, human-caused climate change very difficult.
In Mayfield, Kentucky, a city of around 10,000 people, a candle factory collapsed into a massive pile of debris, and rescuers used their hands and machines to dig through the destruction.
“There’s at least 15 feet (4.5 metres) of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there. It will be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it,” Mr Beshear said.
“Downtown is completely devastated.” -Agencies