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Determined recovery efforts begin after tornadoes wreak devastation, with officials estimating 75% of one Kentucky town gone

KTVZ News Team

By Kelly McCleary, Jason Hanna, Elizabeth Joseph and Claudia Dominguez, CNN

People who had their lives ripped apart in mere moments by violent and unforgiving tornadoes over the weekend are now dealing with a new reality — seeking the basic needs of food and shelter while surrounded by devastation and uncertainty over the fate of their neighbors.

In the small town of Dawson Springs in western Kentucky, about 75% of the community was wiped out and replaced by “chaos,” Mayor Chris Smiley said Sunday.

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said Smiley, who’s lived in the town for 63 years. “It’s just devastating.”

The line of severe weather that moved through the central and southern US late Friday into Saturday left at least 100 people feared dead. The storms spawned at least 50 tornadoes reported across eight states, according to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

In Kentucky, teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are on the ground, Michael Dossett, director of Kentucky Emergency Management said. More than 300 National Guard troops are on duty across nine counties, according to Gov. Andy Beshear.

“The devastation is quite frankly something that you would see in a war zone. This is an event where we had commercial and residence properties literally stripped clean from the earth,” Dossett told CNN Sunday.

The list of missing persons in Dawson Springs contains more than 100 names, a Hopkins County emergency official said Sunday, but they are hopeful most of those are people who left town but haven’t checked in yet.

While rescue efforts continued Sunday, no survivors were pulled from the rubble, said Nick Bailey, the director of emergency management in Hopkins County.

The town’s death toll rose to 13 Sunday, up from 10 Saturday, Hopkins County Coroner Dennis Mayfield said. The fatalities range in age from 34 to 86 and include two elderly sisters who lived together and a husband and wife.

“Right now, our spirits are crushed, but we’ll come back,” said Mayfield.

Meanwhile, “hundreds and hundreds” in the town of nearly 3,000 no longer have a place to live. “Almost an entire city has been displaced at this point,” Bailey said.

Those whose homes are still standing are likely without power and could be in the dark for up to a month, Bailey said.

“You can replace a house, you can replace furniture, you can replace clothes, but you cannot replace memories and pictures,” Erica Steip told CNN affiliate WZTV as she picked through what remains of her sister’s home in Dawson Springs. “She’s alive, and I’m so grateful,” Steip said.

The American Red Cross has eight shelters set up in Kentucky and is providing relief to nearly 200 people, the group’s Kentucky CEO Steven Cunanan said Sunday.

Several state parks have also been opened to help house families who lost everything, Beshear said in a news conference Sunday afternoon.

“We are taking them in,” Beshear said. “We are trying to guarantee everyone a two-week stay, so they’re not worried about tomorrow. They can worry about finding their relatives, making sure their kids have enough to eat.”

Cunanan said the Red Cross’ main goal is to provide food and care to those forced out of their homes by the tornadoes. “We have to help them get their lives back and help them get to a sense of normalcy again.”

The emotional toll of having your life upended by a natural disaster is also an important consideration, Cunanan said. “I’ve seen that on every disaster I’ve been on. They’re shell-shocked. They don’t know where to turn.”

Rescuers can’t go door-to-door because ‘there are no doors,’ Kentucky governor says

For Beshear, the devastation in Dawson Springs hits close to home because it’s his father’s hometown, but the severe weather impacted a large swath of his state.

The death toll in Kentucky alone is at least 80 and is expected to exceed 100, Beshear told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. Eighteen counties in the state are reporting damage, Beshear said, noting one monster tornado was on the ground for more than 227 miles, 200 of which were in Kentucky.

“I’ve got towns that are gone — that are just, I mean, gone,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I mean you go door-to-door to check on people and see if they’re okay. There are no doors … it’s devastating.”

Beshear told NBC News he expects other challenges ahead, given power outages and winter weather conditions, and said some morgues in the state may not be able to accommodate current needs.

“One of our challenges is we’re losing so many people in this, most of our morgues aren’t big enough, so our coroners from all over the state are coming in,” Beshear said.

There is a “massive recovery effort” focused largely in Dawson Springs, Graves, Mayfield, and Bowling Green, according to Dossett, the emergency management director.

President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Kentucky Sunday night, the White House said. The move allows for grants and low-cost loans to be put toward housing and home repairs in affected areas.

“Because housing, we know, is going to be such a tremendous need, we are sending in one of our housing experts that will be here tomorrow to begin the strategy for how we’re going to be able to help with the long-term housing needs and the recovery of these communities,” said Deanne Criswell, FEMA administrator.

Beshear told CNN he plans to visit the candle factory in Mayfield that collapsed in the storm, which struck as employees were working to meet demands of the busy holiday season.

Eight people died at the candle factory and eight others are unaccounted for as of Sunday night, Mayfield Consumer Products spokesperson Bob Ferguson told CNN.

“We know for sure that more than 90 employees escaped with their lives on the night of the tornadoes,” Ferguson said.

“It will be a miracle if anybody else is found alive,” in the rubble of the collapsed candle factory, Beshear said. “There’s at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there.”

The governor said he heard the facility had an emergency plan in place.

“Most of the workers got to what was supposed to be the safest place. But when you see the damage that this storm did not just there, but across the area, I’m not sure there was a plan that would have worked,” he said.

As officials focus their attention on the immediate needs of recovery, forecasters are keeping an eye on the potential for another round of severe weather in the region.

While it’s still early, some areas impacted by the tornadoes will see the same type of weather pattern this week, with a warm-up followed by another front that could bring a risk of severe weather by the weekend, according to CNN meteorologist Michael Guy.

Tornadoes reported in eight states

In addition to Kentucky, tornadoes from the same storm system were reported in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said.

As of Sunday, five EF-3 tornadoes were identified in the following localities: Defiance, Missouri; Edwardsville, Illinois; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Saloma, Kentucky and in Kentucky between Cayce and Beaver Creek, an area that includes the devastated town of Mayfield.

At least six people died at a collapsed Amazon warehouse in the Illinois city of Edwardsville, Fire Chief James Whiteford said. The recovery phase is expected to take days and first responders will continue to search the site for evidence of life, he said.

The six dead ranged in age from 26 to 62, the Edwardsville Police Department said.

One of the victims was identified as Clayton Cope, a 29-year-old US Navy veteran. He had worked for Amazon for just over a year as a maintenance mechanic, his mother, Carla Cope, said. His father also worked at the facility in the same position.

“Had (Clay) not been there, my husband would have,” she said.

An Amazon representative said a tornado warning siren sounded 11 minutes before the storm’s arrival.

“Managers were on the loudspeakers telling people to get to the shelter-in-place area. They were also being guided by other managers and other employees who were trying to get everybody to that safe location,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNN affiliate KSDK Sunday.

She said employees sheltered in two unspecified safe areas. Nantel said dispatchers also contacted Amazon delivery drivers in the area and told them to shelter in place.

In the northeastern Arkansas city of Monette, at least one person was killed at a nursing home damaged by a tornado, Mayor Bob Blankenship said.

A second person died after the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, officials said. That person was identified Sunday as store assistant manager June Pennington of Mississippi County, Arkansas, according to county spokesman Tom Henry.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday it was a “miracle” only one person died at the nursing home.

“As I went to that facility, it was like heaven sucked up the roof and all the contents of it. And it’s just a miracle with 67 residents that we only lost one there. And that’s because of the heroic efforts by the staff and also the fact that we had 20 minutes of warning,” he said.

Officials confirmed two storm-related deaths in Missouri, including a woman killed at home in St. Charles County and a young child killed at home in Pemiscot County, the governor said.

Tennessee reported four weather-related deaths from the severe weather. Two were in Lake County, one in Obion County and one in Shelby County, Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Dean Flener said.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Ashley Killough, Laura Studley, Kiely Westhoff, Susannah Cullinane, Eric Levenson and Amir Vera contributed to this report.

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