As rescue and recovery continues, over 100 still missing in western KY

Midwest Tornadoes
Posted at 11:59 AM, Dec 14, 2021

During a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll in western Kentucky remains at 74 and more than 100 people are still missing, though he still anticipates the death toll will rise as rescue and recovery efforts continue.

There are eight dead who have not yet been identified, Beshear said.

In all, 88 people total are confirmed dead as a result of the tornadoes:

  • 74 in Kentucky
  • 6 in Illinois
  • 4 in Tennessee
  • 2 in Arkansas
  • 2 in Missouri

Beshear said he couldn't give an exact number on how many people are still missing, because people are still reporting loved ones who are unaccounted for. He said that whatever number he could try to give, the actual number would likely be higher.

At a candle factory, where fatalities were initially expected to be high, Beshear said state officials are still working to verify that everyone who survived the facility collapse is accounted for. The owners of the factory have reported that all except for 8 confirmed dead have been accounted for, but Beshear said the state is working to fully verify that.

"We want to make sure that we see and talk to every single one of those employees," he said.

Beshear said he hopes there are no further deaths, but he's concerned the amount of debris at the site could affect the accuracy of cadaver dogs brought in to search.

"The level of absolute destruction in one place is hard to describe when I'm watching a backhoe try to pull a pickup truck off of what was once the roof," he said.

Related: Here's how you, alongside local businesses, can help victims of the western KY tornadoes

Restoration begins, with recovery as a goal

Teams are still combing the rubble in several counties throughout the region, and debris is beginning to be shipped out of town.

"It feels pretty good to not just be pushing this stuff out of the way, but loading it up and taking it out of town," said Beshear.

Michael Dossett, director of Kentucky Emergency Management, said restoration efforts are in full force, but restoration does not mean recovery; restoration efforts focus on short-term needs like restoring power. Recovery efforts will involve rebuilding, which Dossett said won't happen for awhile.

"We're talking about thousands of homes that no longer exist, they're just off the face of those counties," he said.

Roughly 18,500 people in the region are still without power, though this doesn't account for the town of Mayfield, where the electrical system simply no longer exists, Dossett said.

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On Monday, Dossett said that it's been confirmed that at least 5 tornadoes hit the region, including one tornado that traveled roughly 200 miles and left the town of Mayfield, Ky. devastated.

The National Weather Service has not yet released its findings on the storms, but a spokesperson said Sunday the damage surveyed so far indicates at least one tornado was at least an EF-3. The NWS defines an EF-3 tornado as severe, with winds of 136-165 mph.

On Saturday, the governor announced the creation of a fund to help pay for aid and rebuilding efforts in communities. By Tuesday afternoon, the account had raised over $9.9 million, Beshear said. The fund will go directly to victims of the tornadoes, starting with covering funeral expenses, but Beshear said he hopes to stretch the fund to help with long-term solutions, too.

For example, he said, he spoke to a group of farmers and learned the group they sold their products to was wiped out by the tornadoes, leaving the farmers with no ability to sell and gain income into the coming months.

"What we see, looking back on the management, especially of the spending after all major disasters, is a whole lot gets poured in right away and there's not any money left for really expensive things that occur six months, nine months in," said Beshear.

Look for the helpers

Despite the devastation, Kentuckians have rallied together to help raise one another's spirits and pitching in wherever needed. During her tour of several storm-torn regions, Lt. Governor Jacqueline Coleman said she saw both loss and hope among the victims.

While visiting Bremen, Ky., a city of only 300 residents, Coleman said she learned that 11 people had died as a result of the storm, showing how close to home each death is in communities that are small and tight-knit.

"I doubt that there were many people who didn't know or were related to someone who suffered a loss," she said.

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While visiting Taylor County, where 70 homes were destroyed, Coleman said she met a woman cleaning up on her farm. The woman's husband wasn't home, having rounded up their 40 head of cattle to sell at the stockyard because the roof of their barn was missing and the grain in the silo had been exposed to the storm. The fence enclosing their fields didn't exist anymore either, and the couple couldn't care for the cattle any longer.

"The trauma was so raw in that moment that it was hard to imagine," said Coleman. "She told me that as soon as the storm passed, her husband, who was off selling cattle, went next door and their neighbors were in their basement. The house had collapsed in on top of them. This gentleman literally pulled them from the rubble and saved their lives."

Coleman said the man then continued on foot to the next farm, where he found more neighbors trapped in their basement beneath their collapsed home. He called out for them and Coleman said they responded, "We're down here. Please don't leave us."

The man, who Coleman said was also a bus driver for the local school district, then cleared the rubble on his own and pulled them out.

"It's our everyday heroes stepping up," she said. "Look for the helpers as we dig through this damage and recover and rebuild."