USA Today, by John Bacon and Jorge L. Ortiz: Survivors of the tornadoes that ripped through several states last weekend picked through the rubble of their communities, homes and lives Monday amid hopes that the death toll, though stunningly high, could fall short of early fears.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at a Monday afternoon briefing that 74 deaths were confirmed in his state alone, with victims ranging in age from 5 months to 86 years. Beshear initially expected the death toll to climb over 100, and its still could reach triple digits, but that won’t be known for several days as destruction from the tornadoes slows down the tally.
“With this amount of damage and rubble, it may be a week or even more before we have a final count on the number of lost lives,” the governor said.
More than 30 tornadoes late Friday and early Saturday killed at least 16 people in Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. Thousands more were left homeless.
In addition to the loss of life, Beshear said, more than 1,000 properties were destroyed in Kentucky. Thousands of survivors face the possibility of trying to recover without heat, water or power for days or weeks because of damage to the infrastructure in several counties.
About 26,000 customers in the state lacked electricity as of Monday at 3 p.m. CST, Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett said. Earlier, he said more than 10,000 homes and businesses had no water, and 17,000 were under advisories to boil water.
“If you don’t have power, life is not good, and we’re doing everything we can,” Dossett said.
As searches continued for those missing, efforts turned to repairing the power grid, sheltering those whose homes were destroyed and delivering drinking water and other supplies.
“We’re not going to let any of our families go homeless,” Beshear said, announcing that lodges in state parks were being used to provide shelter.
President Joe Biden signed a disaster declaration for Kentucky and pledged to tour some of the affected areas Wednesday.
Based on initial estimates, Beshear said Saturday that “at least dozens” of workers from the Mayfield Consumer Products plant probably died, but the extent of the tragedy at the candle factory appears to be much smaller. Monday afternoon, a company spokesperson said all 110 employees have been accounted for: Eight perished and 102 survived.
One of the five tornadoes that hit Kentucky is believed to have traveled a path of 200 miles or more, possibly challenging the national record of 219 set in 1925. An official tally of its distance won’t be known until surveyors assess the damage, a difficult task given the long trajectory and degree of destruction.
“Some aspects of this event are potentially historic,” said Harold Brooks, senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. “This was a very strong tornado that was on the ground for a really long distance. If it’s 200 miles, it’s in the top few in history.”
Beshear said 109 people remained unaccounted for across the state, and total damage costs are being determined but are in the “hundreds of millions of dollars, at least.”
President Joe Biden to visit Kentucky on Wednesday
The White House announced that Biden will visit Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the damage and offer his support. Biden offered condolences to the victims of the deadly storm and indicated he would travel to the heavily damaged areas once he was certain his visit would not impede recovery efforts.
“With each passing day, the human impact of this devastation, the depth of the losses, are becoming more and more apparent,” Biden said, pointing out the town of Mayfield “has been wiped out.”
The president said some of the major needs in the affected areas are power, water and communication systems, and he has made federal resources readily available to the governors of the impacted states. Biden issued an emergency declaration for Kentucky to accelerate the availability of federal resources and said he was about to do the same for Illinois.
Drawing on his experience visiting disaster sites as a U.S. senator and vice president, Biden said his chief concern is the mental state of the thousands of people whose lives have been turned upside down by this tragedy.
“I worry quite frankly about … the mental health of these people,” Biden said. “If you’ve lost your husband or wife, mother, father, children, somebody along the line, what do you do? Where do you go?”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell met with Beshear on Sunday and held briefings with other state and local officials to assess the damage caused by the storms. Beshear, a Democrat, lauded federal efforts to aid his state since the storm hit.
OSHA investigates Amazon site in Illinois where six workers died
The Amazon warehouse in Illinois where six workers were killed after a tornado strike Friday is under investigation by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Agency spokesperson Scott Allen said OSHA inspectors have been at the Edwardsville site since Saturday and will determine whether workplace safety rules were followed. Two sides of the warehouse collapsed and its roof caved in after the tornado hit Friday night.
Amazon said workers at the building had little time to prepare, as the warehouse received tornado warnings at 8:06 p.m. and 8:16 p.m. and site leaders directed workers to immediately take shelter. Eleven minutes after the second warning, the tornado struck.
Amazon said it was providing $1 million toward tornado relief in the area. Founder Jeff Bezos tweeted that he was “heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones.”
City Hall, fire station, homes destroyed in Mayfield, Kentucky
Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said the fire station and City Hall were destroyed. So were some historic downtown churches, she said.
“I don’t think there’s a pane of glass at any vehicle or property that the city owns that’s not shattered,” she said.
Firefighters in the town had to rip the doors off the fire station to get vehicles out, Fire Chief Jeremy Creason said on “CBS Mornings.”
“Words cannot describe the bravery, the selflessness that they’ve exhibited,” he said of his employees. “We had to try and navigate through all the debris up and down our streets. We were responding with ambulances with three and four flat tires.”
Deaths in Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas
In Tennessee, the National Weather Service confirmed Sunday at least seven tornadoes touched down Saturday morning. Two people were killed in Lake County, one in Obion County and another in Shelby County.
In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson visited hard-hit areas in St. Charles and Pemiscot counties Sunday. His office put the state death toll at four: in Pemiscot County, a young child killed at home, a semitruck driver on I-55 and a motorist on Missouri Route 84, and a woman at home in St. Charles County.
In Arkansas, one person died when a tornado slammed a nursing home in Monette, a town of about 1,500 people 60 miles north of Memphis. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said staffers at the home used their own bodies to shield residents from the carnage.
Tornado winds blow photo 130 miles away
A photo dating to 1942 that was in a home in tornado-battered Dawson Springs, Kentucky, was blown all the way to New Albany, Indiana, 130 miles away.
Katie Posten found the photo near hear home – on the back, it said, “Gertie Swatzell & J.D. Swatzell 1942.” She posted an image of the photo on Facebook and Twitter and asked for help in finding its owners. Cole Swatzell commented that the photo belonged to family members in Dawson Springs.
The fact that the photo traveled almost 130 miles is “unusual but not that unusual,” said John Snow, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“It gets swirled up,” Snow said. “The storm dissipates and then everything flutters down to the ground.”
“The passing days are eventful and full of peril. Signs of a most startling character appear in floods, in hurricanes, in tornadoes, in earthquakes, in casualties by sea and land. The judgments of God are falling on the world, that men may be awakened to the fact that Christ will come speedily.” The Southern Watchman, March 1, 1909, par. 2.