AP

Thousands without heat, water after tornadoes kill dozens

Dec 13, 2021, 9:12 PM
Voluteers help Martha Thomas, second left, salvage possessions from her destroyed home, in the afte...
Voluteers help Martha Thomas, second left, salvage possessions from her destroyed home, in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region, in Mayfield, Ky., Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Residents of Kentucky counties where tornadoes killed dozens of people could be without heat, water or electricity in frigid temperatures for weeks or longer, state officials warned Monday, as the toll of damage and deaths came into clearer focus in five states slammed by the swarm of twisters.

Kentucky authorities said the sheer level of destruction was hindering their ability to tally the damage from Friday night’s storms. At least 88 people — including 74 in Kentucky — were killed by the tornado outbreak that also destroyed a nursing home in Arkansas, heavily damaged an Amazon distribution center in Illinois and spread its deadly effects into Tennessee and Missouri.

In Kentucky, as searches continued for those still missing, efforts also 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,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in announcing that lodges in state parks were being used to provide shelter.

In Mayfield, one of the hardest hit towns, those who survived faced a high in the 50s and a low below freezing Monday without any utilities.

“Our infrastructure is so damaged. We have no running water. Our water tower was lost. Our wastewater management was lost, and there’s no natural gas to the city. So we have nothing to rely on there,” Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said on CBS Mornings. “So that is purely survival at this point for so many of our people.”

Across the state, about 26,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us, including nearly all of those in Mayfield. More than 10,000 homes and businesses have no water, and another 17,000 are under boil-water advisories, Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett told reporters.

Kentucky was the worst hit by far in the cluster of twisters across several states, remarkable because they came at a time of year when cold weather normally limits tornadoes. At least 74 people died in the state, Beshear said Monday, offering the first specific count of the dead.

In Bowling Green, Kentucky, 11 people died on the same street, including two infants found among the bodies of five relatives near a residence, Warren County coroner Kevin Kirby said.

Beshear warned that it could take days longer to pin down the full death toll, with door-to-door searches impossible in some places.

“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.

Initially as many as 70 people were feared dead in the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, but the company said Sunday that eight deaths were confirmed and eight people remained missing, while more than 90 others had been located. Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company, said many employees gathered in a tornado shelter, then left the site and were hard to reach because phone service was out.

On Monday evening, Louisville Emergency Management Director E.J. Meiman said at a news conference that the company indicated everyone in the building during the storm had been accounted for.

“We have a high level of confidence that nobody is left in this building,” Meiman said. He added the death toll from the factory has not changed.

Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky. Twisted sheet metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs torn off the buildings that were still standing.

Five twisters hit Kentucky in all, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 200 miles (322 kilometers), authorities said.

In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where the Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where the nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers shielded residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into the collapse of the Amazon warehouse in Illinois.

Amazon’s Kelly Nantel said the Illinois warehouse was “constructed consistent with code.” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said there would be an investigation into updating code “given serious change in climate that we are seeing across the country” that appears to factor into stronger tornadoes.

Not far from Mayfield, 67 people spent Sunday night at a church serving as a shelter in Wingo, and 40 more were expected to arrive Monday. Organizers were working to find a mobile outdoor shower facility and a laundry truck, expecting many of the displaced to need a long-term place to stay. Volunteers were scrambling to meet more immediate needs, too, such as underwear and socks.

Lifelong Mayfield resident Cynthia Gargis, 51, is staying with her daughter after the storm tore off the front of her apartment and sucked out almost everything inside. She came to the shelter to offer help and visit with friends who lost their homes.

“I don’t know, I don’t see how we’ll ever get over this,” she said. “It won’t ever be the same.”

Glynda Glover, 82, said she had no idea how long she would stay at the Wingo shelter: Her apartment is uninhabitable since the wind blew out the windows and covered her bed in glass and asphalt.

“I’ll stay here until we get back to whatever normal is,” she said, “and I don’t know what normal is anymore.”

On the outskirts of Dawson Springs, another town devastated by the storms, homes were reduced to rubble and trees toppled, littering the landscape for a span of at least a mile.

“It looks like a bomb went off. It’s just completely destroyed in areas,” said Jack Whitfield Jr., the Hopkins County judge-executive.

He estimated that more than 60% of the town, including hundreds of homes, was “beyond repair.”

“A full recovering is going to take years,” he said.

Tim Morgan, a volunteer chaplain for the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Department, said he’s seen the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes before, but nothing like this.

“Just absolute decimation. There is an entire hillside of houses that are 3 feet tall now,” he said.

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Thousands without heat, water after tornadoes kill dozens