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Search and rescue continues in Kentucky after deadly tornadoes in South and Midwest

Marty James and a neighbor stand in front of his house in Mayfield, Ky., on Sunday after it was destroyed by a tornado.
Cyril Julien
/
AFP via Getty Images
Marty James and a neighbor stand in front of his house in Mayfield, Ky., on Sunday after it was destroyed by a tornado.

Updated December 13, 2021 at 7:16 PM ET

Officials say it could be days before the full extent of the damage from the dozens of tornadoes that hit the South and Midwest over the weekend is known, as recovery efforts continue in the wake of the historic storm.

Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi were struck by dozens of tornadoes Friday night and Saturday morning. It was an unusual outbreak created, in part, by unseasonably warm temperatures.

The vast majority of the destruction landed in Kentucky, where one massive twister traveled for more than 200 miles. After giving differing estimates over the weekend on the number of casualties, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday afternoon that 74 people in the state had been confirmed killed, while 109 remain unaccounted for.

"Thousands of homes are damaged if not entirely destroyed and it may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction," Beshear said. He cautioned residents that more deaths could be announced in the coming days as responders sort through rubble.

At least 14 people were also killed in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.

The dead include six people who were confirmed killed at an Amazon facility that was ripped apart in Illinois, and at least one person who died at a nursing home in Arkansas.

An 84-year-old woman was killed in Defiance, Mo., when her home was blown off its foundation, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A young child was also killed in the state.

The worst storms had winds of at least 111 mph

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service have offered new details on the extent and the strength of some of the tornadoes that touched down.

Tornadoes from the same storm are believed to have hit Kentucky, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.

At least four EF-3 and five EF-2 tornadoes had been confirmed in Missouri and Illinois. An EF-3 twister is considered significant or severe with wind speeds reaching between 111 mph and 165 mph.

In Kentucky alone, the towns of Bowling Green and Saloma and the area between Cayce and Beaver Creek were also likely hit by an EF-3 tornado.

The NWS cautioned that it may be some time before the full scope of the storm's severity will be known. Their work surveying the tornado event will continue over the next few days. They face difficulties with communication outages and want to avoid interfering in search and rescue operations, the organization said.

Kentucky was the hardest hit state

Whole communities were destroyed across western Kentucky, where search and rescue efforts are underway. Nearly 450 National Guard members are helping with rescue and recovery, Beshear said.

The governor had offered varying estimates over the weekend that between 50 and 100 people had died, but on Monday morning he revised the figure to 64, and by afternoon, 74. The dead range in age from 5 months to 86 years, and six are minors, according to Beshear.

A total of 18 counties suffered damage, he said, and eight counties experienced fatalities.

Drone video on Saturday showed horrendous destruction in the small town of Mayfield, with buildings torn to pieces as far as the eye could see.

Attention centered over the weekend on the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, where 110 people were believed to be on the job on the night shift when a tornado hit. Pictures show it was utterly decimated.

"I was there yesterday, and it's even worse than the images," Beshear told NPR on Sunday. "It's 15 plus feet of steel, of cars that were in the parking lot that went through the roof of drums of corrosive chemicals."

According to the business, 94 employees are alive and accounted for — a much higher number than officials initially believed. Beshear said the company said eight people are dead and eight are missing, though the governor said the state is working to confirm these numbers.

"We very much hope that that is true," he said on Monday.

In Dawson Springs, the city where Beshear's father grew up, "the devastation is just indescribable," he told NPR on Sunday.

"A block from my grandparents' house — everything is just gone, gone. I'd like to say we're going door to door in places, but there are no doors. That community is going to lose a number of people," he added.

Meanwhile, thousands of people have been left homeless across the state. Emergency responders are giving out generators, meals, water, cots and blankets, while eight shelters are open in the state for people who lost their homes.

On Monday afternoon, Beshear urged people who lost homes to file claims with their insurers as well as with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Residents should photograph as much as possible and list damaged property. "You need to document everything you possibly can," he said.

He also thanked people who had given money to relief efforts and directed those who want to volunteer to sign up through this website. "We feel your love. We feel your support," Beshear said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Sunday that FEMA will be on the ground in the state "until recovery is complete."

There is now a mountain of debris to contend with as well, which the governor said would take time to clear. About 26,500 homes and businesses are without power as of Monday afternoon, officials said. Water service is out for thousands, while cell service has been restored in some counties and is in progress in others.

Beshear declared a state of emergency Saturday morning. Hours later, President Biden approved emergency federal assistance for the state.

"The devastation is just stunning," Biden told reporters on Monday. "They've been wiped out," he said, describing the damage in Mayfield. "I worry quite frankly about the mental health of these people. What do you do? Where do you go?"

The president is expected to travel to Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the damage and meet with Beshear.

Four people are dead in Tennessee

In this aerial photo, destroyed homes are seen in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region, in Dresden, Tenn., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021.
Gerald Herbert / AP
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AP
In this aerial photo, destroyed homes are seen Sunday in Dresden, Tenn., after tornadoes tore through the region.

Across the border in Tennessee, a state of emergency remains in place as responders continue the massive cleanup effort.

The National Weather Service confirmed that at least seven tornadoes touched down in Middle Tennessee early Saturday morning, according to The Tennessean.

Four people were killed in the storms, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Two fatalities were reported in Lake County, one in Obion County and one in Shelby County.

Two of those killed were a father and son from Florida who were on a hunting trip in Lake County. Another man who was with them on the hunting trip is still missing.

On Monday, Gov. Bill Lee asked the White House to declare an emergency in Cheatham, Decatur, Dickson, Dyer, Gibson, Lake, Obion, Stewart, and Weakley counties in order to make federal aid available.

Boil water advisories remain in place in the towns of Dresden, Kenton and Samberg.

TEMA established a web page with links to resources for those needing help and those looking to provide assistance, while other resources are listed at NPR member station WPLN.

Amazon facility in Illinois was "catastrophically" damaged

A heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center is seen Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Edwardsville, Ill.
Jeff Roberson / AP
/
AP
A heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center is seen Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill.

The Edwardsville Police Department in Illinois reported that the tornado that hit the Amazon warehouse caused "catastrophic damage to a significant portion" of the facility.

Some 45 workers were able to escape the wreckage.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the names of those killed in the Amazon facility as Etheria Hebb, 34; Deandre S. Morrow, 28; Kevin D. Dickey, 62; Clayton Lynn Cope, 29; Larry E. Virden, 46; and Austin J. McEwen, 26.

One woman shared her harrowing tale of hiding in the warehouse bathroom as the EF-3 tornado hit and the building collapsed.

"We were just standing there talking. That's when we heard the noise. It felt like the floor started moving. We all got closer to each other. We all started screaming," Jaeira Hargrove told the Post-Dispatch.

Hargrove told the paper that emergency responders got to the scene in 10 minutes and had to cut workers out of the rubble.

Amazon said it has committed $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation to support relief work.

"The news from Edwardsville is tragic. We're heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones," Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tweeted late Saturday evening.

"All of Edwardsville should know that the Amazon team is committed to supporting them and will be by their side through this crisis," he went on to say. "We extend our fullest gratitude to all the incredible first responders who have worked so tirelessly at the site."

On Monday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster declaration for areas affected by the storm.

Rachel Treisman contributed reporting.

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Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.