Residents of a Kentucky town devastated by a tornado could be without heat, water and electricity in chilly temperatures for a “long time”, the mayor has warned, as officials struggle to restore services after a swarm of twisters levelled neighbourhoods and killed dozens of people across five US states.
Authorities are still tallying the devastation from Friday’s storms, although they believe the death toll will be lower than initially feared since it appeared many more people had escaped a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, than first thought.
“This is a tough morning … but it’s OK, we’re still going to be all right,” Mayfield mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said on CBS Mornings. But those who survived faced below freezing conditions on Monday without any utilities.
“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.”
Across the state, tens of thousands of people were without power. National Guard members were going house-to-house, checking on people and helping remove debris. Cadaver dogs were searching for victims.
Kentucky was the worst-hit in the cluster of tornadoes across several states, remarkable because they came at a time of year when cold weather normally limits them. They left at least eight people dead at the state’s Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory and another 12 were reported killed in and around Bowling Green. At least another 14 people died in Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.
Authorities were 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,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear said.
“We’re going to have over 1,000 homes that are gone, just gone,” he said.
Mr Beshear had said on Sunday morning that the state’s death toll could exceed 100. But he later said it might be 50.
Initially, as many as 70 people were feared dead in the candle factory, but the company said on Sunday that eight had been 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,” Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company, said.
“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 people in western Kentucky. Twisted sheet metal, downed power cables 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 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.”
Ms O’Nan said historic churches had been destroyed – just a week after she and others had visited them on a pre-Christmas “advent walk”.
“Little did we know it would be the last time we did that,” she said on Today.
“But we’re so, so thankful to have had that opportunity, which will be in our hearts forever – every Christmas, that’s what we’ll think of.”
At the candle factory, night-shift workers were in the middle of the holiday rush when the word went out to seek shelter.
“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 tornadoes hit Kentucky in total, including one with an extraordinarily long path of around 200 miles (322km), 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.
Pope Francis expressed his sadness over the “devastating impact” of the tornadoes.
In a telegram sent on Monday by Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope offered prayers for those who died, “comfort to those who mourn their loss and strength to all those affected by this immense tragedy”.
In the shadows of their crumpled church sanctuaries, two congregations in Mayfield came together on Sunday to pray for those who were lost.
“Our little town will never be the same, but we’re resilient,” Laura McClendon said.
“We’ll get there, but it’s going to take a long time.”
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