Rescuers continued to search for survivors Monday after tornadoes tore through Kentucky and neighboring states over the weekend, devastating entire towns and killing dozens of people.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in an update Monday afternoon that 74 people in the state had been confirmed dead and that over 100 others were unaccounted for, with both numbers expected to grow.
Beshear said Monday morning that it would take “a week or even more before we have a final count on the number of lost lives,” saying the “mountain of waste” included perished livestock.
Flags at government buildings will be flown at half-staff for a week beginning Tuesday, and a state fund will pay for the funerals of those who have died, Beshear said.
The series of unseasonal storms ripped through several states across the Midwest and the South overnight Friday, leveling a candle factory and entire communities in Kentucky and hitting a nursing home in Arkansas and an Amazon distribution center in Illinois.
Meteorologists have said climate change most likely made the tornado outbreak worse by altering or amplifying the ingredients that produced the outbreak, such as higher-than-average December temperatures.
President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Sunday, providing federal aid in at least eight counties after the storm destroyed homes and left thousands of customers without power.
Beshear said that he was grateful for the declaration, which he said was the fastest he had ever seen, and that Biden had called him three times Saturday. Biden plans to travel to the state Wednesday for a storm briefing and to survey damage in Mayfield and Dawson Springs.
More than 300 National Guard members were on the ground Monday in Kentucky, while 30,000 homes remained without power.
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Dozens of families were mourning. Beshear was among them, as he confirmed that he, too, had lost loved ones.
Many others were still waiting to hear whether relatives had survived, as spotty cellphone service made it even more difficult to determine who was missing.
“I’m really sorry,” Beshear said Sunday to those still searching for answers. “You’re not supposed to lose people like this, and to not know and not have the information has got to make it that much harder.”
“This is the deadliest tornado event we have ever had,” he said.
At least eight people were confirmed dead after the roof of a candle factory in Mayfield collapsed. Survivors described harrowing scenes.
Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan told NBC’s “Nightly News” that the town “is gone.”
“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.”
Only one Mayfield pharmacy was operating, and another was expected to open Monday. Beshear advised people to bring their medication bottles, although he noted grimly that “the pharmacy recognizes that you probably don’t have them.”
Mayfield was not the only town that was destroyed. Beshear said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “I’ve got towns that are gone,” including half of his father’s hometown, Dawson Springs.
In Graves County, a 3-year-old child was confirmed to be among the dead, and two other counties lost at least a dozen community members.
While Kentucky was the hardest-hit state, the devastation tore beyond its borders. Several people were killed in Illinois, Tennessee and Arkansas.
At least six people were confirmed dead after an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, was devastated.
Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos said in a tweet Saturday that he and others were “heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the collapse, the agency said. Amazon spokespeople said Monday that the inquiry is welcome, adding that the structure was built according to code.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation Monday for the counties that were affected.
At least four people were confirmed to have been killed in Tennessee, and two were killed in Missouri, including a young child. At least two people were confirmed dead in Arkansas, one of them a person at a nursing home in Monette.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he and his team visited western Kentucky on Sunday.
“The pictures don’t do the travesty justice. There’s nothing like seeing it up close and personal,” he said.
“It was nothing but rubble,” he continued. “We saw there a backpack recovered, an individual’s shoe, a cellphone that had 27 missed calls recorded on it.”
He said survivors are being provided with water, food, clothing and blankets and will be reimbursed for temporary housing.
Vice President Kamala Harris, during unrelated remarks Monday, said: “Our hearts, of course, go out to the communities that have been impacted. You’ve lost so much and so quickly. We are committed — the president and I, and our administration — to helping you and helping to heal the wounds, which will probably be long-lasting.”
‘A plan to move forward’
Michael Dossett, the director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, has said efforts are already underway to start rebuilding.
Speaking Sunday at a news conference, he said officials were drafting “a plan to move forward, bringing new housing construction.”
However, he said, he also wanted to manage expectations, warning that “this doesn’t happen overnight.”
In Mayfield, residents said they were ready to rebuild as they grappled with the devastating losses of their homes and businesses.
“There’s nothing left here. So all we can do is just clean up and start again,” said Wayne Flint, whose family restaurant was flattened. “That’s what we’re going to do. … I don’t know what else to do.”
Another resident said: “It’s going to get better. … Neighbors help neighbors. We’re going to be back.”
Beshear said he suspected that “thousands” of homes had been lost.
Some state parks were open for housing, he said, calling on volunteers to help out. “We’re not going to let any of our folks go homeless,” he added.
Beshear said that in his rush to write notes about the number of dead and missing Monday morning, he grabbed one of his children’s school notes about inertia with the reminder “An object in motion will stay in motion.”
“We will keep putting one foot in front of another and push through this,” Beshear said. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be with you today, we’re going to be with you tomorrow, and we’re going to be with you to rebuild.”
Speaking later Monday afternoon, Beshear advised Kentuckians to be careful and avoid downed power lines as people begin to sort through the wreckage of their battered towns.
“As you begin cleaning up, take photos. Make a list of your damaged property,” he said. “This is going to be really important for claiming public assistance. You need to document everything you possibly can.”