By Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely
At least 64 people, including six children, lost their lives in Kentucky after a string of tornadoes tore through six states, with power still out for thousands and strangers welcoming survivors who lost everything into their homes.
While the toll from the deadly twisters was lower than initially feared, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he expects it to increase as searchers sift through a flattened landscape of twisted metal, downed trees and homes reduced to rubble.
“It may be weeks before we have counts on both deaths and levels of destruction,” Beshear told reporters, adding that the victims ranged in age from 5 months to 86 years old, and that 105 people were still unaccounted for.
Across Kentucky, neighbors and volunteers worked to house, feed and offer any other assistance to those left homeless by the storm.
On Monday, Terra Utley was sorting through what was left of her house in Mayfield, a town of 10,000 that suffered some of the worst damage from the tornadoes. Nine colleagues from the concrete company where she has been employed as a truck driver since June worked alongside her.
“We are a big family. We really are,” said the 32-year-old. “For them to be out here, taking time out of their day to come help me, it means the world to me.”
Utley tried to ride out the storm with her fiancé, Jeremiah Barker, and her mother-in-law, huddled in a central hallway of her house. But the winds were so strong that they pushed the family out of their hideout as the house collapsed around them, she recalled.
They were rescued by a man who was helping residents on Utley’s street, she said, and the family was currently sheltering at her brother-in-law’s place.
As the crew dug through the rubble in the sunny but brisk morning, Utley was delighted to be reunited with some prized possessions, including her mother-in-law’s brown leather purse and an intact ceramic mug that had belonged to her dad with an unopened can of Mountain Dew in it, just where her daughter had left it.
In the hard-hit small town, many homes suffered the same fate as Utley’s, with walls collapsed, roofs missing and uprooted trees scattered across lawns. The police and fire stations, as well as a local candle factory, were obliterated.
‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’
While the National Weather Service has yet to conclude the strength of the twisters that tore through Mayfield, Beshear said they were likely so powerful that he no amount of training or advanced notice would have made a difference.
“You can have the warnings, but what do you do?,” he asked. “I mean how do you tell people that there’s going to be one of the most powerful tornadoes in history and it’s going to come directly through your building?”
Beshear said the death toll from Mayfield’s collapsed candle factory may be lower than officials had first thought. He said authorities were trying to confirm information from the owners of the Mayfield Consumer Products LLC factory that eight people had perished at the site when the storm hit late Friday, and that only a small number of the 110 workers were unaccounted for.
“We feared much, much worse,” he said. “I pray that it is accurate.”
Kentucky’s emergency management director, Michael Dossett also at the briefing, said 28,000 homes and businesses remained without power.
More than 300 National Guard personnel and scores of state workers were distributing supplies and working to clear roads so that mountains of debris can be removed in the aftermath of the disaster, the governor said.
He added that authorities were coordinating an “unprecedented amount of goods and volunteers.” The White House said President Joe Biden will travel to the state on Wednesday and visit some of the areas hardest-hit, including Mayfield.
Beshear, at times choking up, said the search, rescue and recovery process in the swath of destruction has been an emotional roller coaster for all those involved, including him.
“You go from grief to shock to being resolute for a span of 10 minutes and then you go back,” he said.
Biden on Sunday declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky, paving the way for additional federal aid, the White House said.
While Kentucky was hardest hit, six workers were killed at an 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 told Reuters 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.