Kentucky officials expressed relief on Monday that dozens of workers at a tornado-shattered candle factory had survived the twisters that left at least 79 people dead and a trail of destruction across six US states.
Governor Andy Beshear said 65 deaths have been confirmed in the southeastern state and choked up as he told reporters the fatalities ranged in age from five months old to 86.
“Like the folks in western Kentucky, I’m not doing so well today and I’m not sure how many of us are,” Beshear said.
The governor said 105 people in Kentucky remain unaccounted for, and “it may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction.”
“Undoubtedly there will be more (dead),” he said. “We believe that it will certainly be above 70, maybe even 80.”
But the governor said fears of a devastating death toll in the collapse of the candle factory in the ravaged town of Mayfield were apparently unfounded.
Some 110 employees were working late Friday at the Mayfield Consumer Products plant to meet the holiday rush when the tornado ripped the building to shreds.
The factory owners reported eight dead and eight missing from the collapse, and said “94 are alive and have been accounted for,” Beshear said.
“We feared much, much worse,” he said, calling it a “light of hope.”
Thousands of people have been left homeless by what the governor described as the state’s worst storm on record.
Fourteen deaths have been reported in four other states hit by the twisters — Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. There was also damage, though no deaths, in Mississippi.
Six of the deaths occurred at an Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, where workers were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.
Biden To Visit Kentucky
The White House announced that President Joe Biden will visit Kentucky on Wednesday and survey damage in Mayfield and Dawson Springs.
Biden has declared a major disaster in Kentucky, allowing additional federal aid to be channeled into recovery efforts.
Two days after the tornadoes hit, emergency responders were picking through the rubble of thousands of damaged or destroyed homes and buildings in Kentucky.
Communities were also digging out in five other states where tornadoes touched down Friday night into Saturday, in what Biden described as “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history.
“We will be there throughout to enable the people to recover and rebuild,” US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN.
With an immense recovery effort looming, immediate concerns for residents’ safety and well-being were front and center as cold weather began to bite in towns that resembled war zones.
Officials said 28,500 Kentucky customers remained without power Monday.
A nondenominational church in Mayfield was handing out food and clothing to storm survivors while also providing space for the county coroner to do his work, said pastor Stephen Boyken of His House Ministries.
People “come with pictures, birthmarks — they talk now about using DNA samples to identify those who have been lost,” Boyken told AFP.
‘Up in Smoke’
The storm system’s power placed it in historic company.
Storm trackers said it had lofted debris 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) into the air, and the Mayfield twister appeared to have broken an almost century-old record, tracking on the ground more than 200 miles (320 kilometers).
Mayfield, a town of about 10,000 near the westernmost tip of Kentucky, was perhaps the hardest-hit community: city blocks were leveled, historic homes and buildings were beaten down to their slabs, tree trunks had been stripped of their branches and cars lay overturned in fields.
Randy Guennel, a 79-year-old retiree, survived two days with his sick wife in their destroyed home before finding shelter at a church north of Mayfield.
“We’ve worked so many years for all this and it’s up in smoke,” he said, choking back sobs. “We don’t have a house, no cars, no nothing.”