Residents of Kentucky counties where tornadoes killed several dozen people could be without heat, water or electricity in frigid temperatures for weeks or longer, state officials warned Monday, as the toll of damage and deaths came into clearer focus in five states slammed by the swarm of twisters.
Authorities are still tallying the devastation from Friday's storms, though they believe the death toll will be lower than initially feared since it appeared many more people escaped a candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., than first thought.
At least 88 people — including 74 in Kentucky — were killed by the tornados which also destroyed a nursing home in Arkansas, heavily damaged an Amazon distribution centre in Illinois and spread their deadly effects into Tennessee and Missouri. Another 105 people were still unaccounted for in Kentucky as of Monday afternoon, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
As searches continued for those still missing, efforts also turned to repairing the power grid, sheltering those whose homes were destroyed and delivering drinking water and other supplies.
"We're not going to let any of our families go homeless," Beshear said in announcing that lodges in state parks were being used to provide shelter.
In Bowling Green, Ky., 11 people died on the same street, including two infants found among the bodies of five relatives near a residence, Warren County coroner Kevin Kirby said.
In Mayfield, one of the hardest hit towns, those who survived faced a high around 10 C and a low below freezing Monday without any utilities.
"Our infrastructure is so damaged. We have no running water. Our water tower was lost. Our waste water management was lost, and there's no natural gas to the city. So we have nothing to rely on there," Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O'Nan said on . "So that is purely survival at this point for so many of our people."
Across the state, about 26,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us, including nearly all of those in Mayfield.
More than 10,000 homes and businesses have no water, and another 17,000 are under boil-water advisories, Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett told reporters.
Dossett warned that full recovery in the hardest-hit places could take not just months, but years.
"This will go on for years to come," he said.
Authorities are still trying to determine the total number of dead, and the storms made door-to-door searches impossible in some places. "There are no doors," said Beshear.
"We're going to have over 1,000 homes that are gone, just gone," he said.
Beshear had said Sunday morning that the state's toll could exceed 100. But he later said it might be as low as 50.
'Then he was gone'
Initially as many as 70 people were feared dead in the candle factory in Mayfield, but the company said Sunday that eight were confirmed dead and eight remained missing, while more than 90 others had been located.
"Many of the employees were gathered in the tornado shelter and after the storm was over they left the plant and went to their homes," said Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company. "With the power out and no landline they were hard to reach initially. We're hoping to find more of those eight unaccounted as we try their home residences."
Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky. Twisted sheet metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs 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, according to Fire Chief Jeremy Creason on .
"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 tires."
At the candle factory, night-shift workers were in the middle of the holiday rush when the word went out to seek shelter.
For Autumn Kirks, that meant tossing aside wax and fragrance buckets to make an improvised safe place. She glanced away from her boyfriend, Lannis Ward, who was about three metres away at the time.
Suddenly, she saw sky and lightning where a wall had been, and Ward had vanished.
"I remember taking my eyes off of him for a second, and then he was gone," Kirks said.
Later in the day, she got the terrible news — that Ward had been killed in the storm.
"It was indescribable," Pastor Joel Cauley said of the disaster scene. "It was almost like you were in a twilight zone. You could smell the aroma of candles, and you could hear the cries of people for help. Candle smells and all the sirens is not something I ever expected to experience at the same time."
Four twisters hit Kentucky in all, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 322 kilometres, authorities said.
In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution centre in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers shielded residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into the collapse of the Amazon warehouse in Illinois.
Volunteers scramble for necessities
Not far from Mayfield, 67 people spent Sunday night at a church serving as a shelter in Wingo, and 40 more were expected to arrive Monday. Organizers were working to find a mobile outdoor shower facility and a laundry truck, expecting many of the displaced to need a long-term place to stay. Volunteers were scrambling to meet more immediate needs, too.
"I've got two that need undergarments," one said. "Do we have socks?"
Lifelong Mayfield resident Cynthia Gargis, 51, is staying with her daughter after the storm tore off the front of her apartment and sucked out almost everything inside, including her Christmas tree. She came to the shelter to offer help and visit with friends who lost their homes.
"I don't know, I don't see how we'll ever get over this," she said. "It won't ever be the same."
On the outskirts of Dawson Springs, another town devastated by the storms, homes were reduced to rubble and trees toppled, littering the landscape for a span of at least a mile.
"It looks a bomb went off. It's just completely destroyed in areas," said Jack Whitfield Jr., the Hopkins County judge-executive.
He estimated that more than 60 per cent of the town, including hundreds of homes, was "beyond repair."
"A full recovering is going to take years," he said.
Tim Morgan, a volunteer chaplain for the Hopkins County Sheriff's Department, said he's seen the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes before, but nothing like this.
"Just absolute decimation. There is an entire hillside of houses that are three feet tall now," he said.
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