At least 74 people have been killed in Kentucky after a host of tornadoes tore through the US state, authorities said on Monday, as crews continue to sift through the devastation wrought by the deadly storms.
During a news conference on Monday morning, Governor Andy Beshear said authorities were still assessing the damage from the tornadoes, which levelled entire neighbourhoods, destroyed 1,000 homes and wiped out critical infrastructure.
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Beshear also warned that the death toll is likely to rise, as 109 people remained missing.
“Undoubtedly [the death toll] will be more, we believe it will certainly be above 70 maybe even 80,” he said. “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.”
Beshear, who choked back tears at times during the news conference, said the search, rescue and recovery process in the swathe of destruction has been an emotional roller coaster for all those involved.
The dead, including at least six children, ranged in age from 5 months to 86 years old.
Thousands of people also have been left homeless by what Beshear has described as the state’s worst storm on record. “You go from grief to shock to being resolute for a span of 10 minutes and then you go back,” he told reporters.
At least another 14 deaths were reported in Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri amid the slew of storms, but Kentucky was by far the worst hit by the twisters that struck across several US states at a time of year when cold weather normally limits tornadoes.
Residents of Mayfield – a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky where a tornado tore through entire neighbourhoods, destroying most buildings in its path – were assessing the damage on Monday.
Judy Burton’s hands shivered as she gazed up at what had been her third-floor apartment. She could see her clothes still hanging in the closet, through the building’s shredded walls. Burton and her dog had narrowly escaped as a tornado hit.
“It’s gone. It’s terrible, just terrible, I’m shaking,” she said. “It’s going to take me a while to settle my nerves.”
The town could be without heat, water and electricity in chilly temperatures for a long time, the mayor said on Monday.
“This is a tough morning … but it’s OK, we’re still going to be all right,” Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said in an interview on the CBS Mornings TV programme, adding, however, that survivors will be without utilities amid cold winter temperatures.
“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,” she told CBS. “So that is purely survival at this point for so many of our people.”
Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, while twisted sheet metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs were torn off the buildings that were still standing.
Firefighters in the town had to rip the doors off the fire station to get vehicles out, Fire Chief Jeremy Creason also told CBS Mornings.
“Words cannot describe the bravery, the selflessness that they’ve exhibited,” he said of his employees. “We had to try and navigate through all the debris up and down our streets. We were responding with ambulances with three and four flat tyres.”
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Mayfield on Monday, said many families in the devastated town are weighing whether it is even possible to rebuild their lives there.
“People who are coming back to Mayfield to assess the damage, they are asking themselves not only how can they recover, rebuild, but how can this whole entire community that has been essentially razed by this disaster – a whole community that now needs to be rebuilt,” Zhou-Castro said.
Across the state, more than 26,700 homes and businesses were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us, including nearly all of those in Mayfield.
Four twisters hit Kentucky in all, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 322 kilometres (200 miles), authorities said.
More than 300 National Guard personnel and dozens 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.
He added that authorities were coordinating an “unprecedented amount of goods and volunteers.”
President Joe Biden was expected to visit the state on Wednesday. The White House said he would visit Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a briefing on the response operations before then heading to Mayfield and Dawson Springs to survey the damage.
Biden late on Sunday declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky, paving the way for additional federal aid to flow to the state.