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'From grief to shock': Tornadoes kill at least 74 in Kentucky

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By Reuters
'From grief to shock': Tornadoes kill at least 74 in Kentucky
'From grief to shock': Tornadoes kill at least 74 in Kentucky   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021

By Gabriella Borter

MAYFIELD, Ky. – The barrage of tornadoes that tore through six states killed at least 74 people in Kentucky, where on Monday volunteers handed out coffee, chainsaws chewed through debris and survivors sought refuge in shelters and spare rooms.

The death toll was likely to rise as another 109 people remained missing, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said. Some 28,000 Kentucky homes and businesses still lacked power. The tornadoes, which the governor estimated destroyed 1,000 homes, surprised people by striking unusually late in the year during cold weather on Friday.

The dead, including at least six children, ranged in age from 5 months to 86 years old.

It has proven difficult for authorities to pin down the exact death toll. Piles of wreckage, interruptions to cell service and the number of people sheltering with friends and relatives have complicated efforts to identify fatalities.

While Kentucky bore the brunt of the tornadoes, including one that tore across tore across 227 miles (365 km) of terrain, six people died in Illinois, four in Tennessee and two in Missouri, while a nursing home was struck in Arkansas, causing one of that state’s two deaths.

Across Kentucky, neighbors and volunteers worked to house, feed and offer any other assistance to those left homeless by the storm.

Stephen Jennittie, 52, was staying in The Way shelter in Wingo with his wife Christie Bonds, their Chihuahua puppy Mr. Jingles and about 90 other Mayfield residents, since the power and heat were knocked out of their home.

Their survival felt like such a miracle that it renewed his religious faith, Jennittie said, recalling how his house shook amid the rumbling noise.

“I was talking to God and I told my lady, when we get out of here, we’re going to start going to church,” said Jennittie, a seventh-generation resident Mayfield who said he may leave a devastated hometown that he no longer recognizes.

“It ain’t the Mayfield I grew up in.”

Homes across the town had collapsed walls, missing roofs and uprooted trees scattered across lawns. The police and fire stations, as well as a local candle factory, were obliterated.

President Joe Biden will travel to the state on Wednesday to visit hard-hit areas including Mayfield, the White House said.

In the city of Bowling Green, about 130 miles (209 km) east of Mayfield, Josh Poling, the owner of the Hickory & Oak steakhouse, said he organized local restaurant owners to hand out gift cards and had raised more than $50,000 by Monday afternoon.

“These are for everyone in need,” he said. “Not just people whose houses are damaged, but people stuck without power for who knows how long. They can come in and have a nice meal.”

‘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.

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 involved.

“You go from grief to shock to being resolute for a span of 10 minutes and then you go back,” he 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. The U.S. workplace safety watchdog is investigating the circumstances around the collapse and Amazon said it would cooperate.