As thousands of people without homes or utilities try to recover from the deadliest day of tornadoes during the month of December in US history, efforts are now turning to the arduous tasks of rebuilding shattered communities.
A candlelight vigil was held Tuesday night in Mayfield, one of the hardest-hit towns in western Kentucky, the state where at least 71 people died. Amid prayers and hymns, pastors spoke about the dead and the challenges facing survivors.
By Monday, electric power was restored to about 10,000 Kentucky customers, according to state emergency management director Michael Dossett, and roughly 18,500 outages were active.
These figures do not even include Mayfield, a town of 10,000 people, which he said, “doesn’t exist.” Power in the town will take “weeks and months” to rebuild, he said.
The damage rating for the tornado that tore through Mayfield and Dawson Springs on Friday night was upgraded to an EF-4 in intensity, with estimated peak winds reaching 190 mph, based on continuing damage surveys from a National Weather Service office.
The tornado had a maximum path width of a mile or more and was on the ground for at least 128 miles, taking more than two hours to move through western Kentucky.
“Being on the ground will take your breath away,” Dossett said of the catastrophic damage. “It is simply indescribable in some places.”Officials in Kentucky revised the death toll downward Wednesday, saying there were a few duplicates among a figure of 74 announced Tuesday.
In pictures: Deadly tornadoes hit central and southern US
At least 14 people were killed in Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri. More than 60 tornado reports were made in eight states in the Midwest and South Friday night and Saturday morning, according to the National Weather Service. Multiple reports can refer to the same tornado, and weather service crews have yet to determine how many twisters hit during that time.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said more than 500 members of the National Guard were assisting with tasks including search-and-extraction, clearing routes and traffic control.
Short- and long-term FEMA recovery teams are in Kentucky, Dossett said. The agency has begun the “blue tarp process” of covering damaged homes and is also in the process of debris removal, he added.
Two teams from FEMA will work Wednesday to assess storm damage in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. At least 300 structures were impacted by the storms, he said, with 61 destroyed.
President Joe Biden visited Kentucky to meet victims and survey the damage.
The President said the federal government will be involved until things are rebuilt.
“We’re not going to leave,” he said, saying that residents were going through “a God-awful mess now.”
More severe weather was hitting parts of the US Wednesday, with an intense storm system producing widespread damaging winds, tornadoes and extreme fire danger in parts of the Rockies and Great Plains, with high winds leading to dust storm conditions over portions of the Plains.
A red flag warning and a high wind warning were in effect Wednesday afternoon for multiple counties in northwest Oklahoma as multiple wildfires burned, Oklahoma Emergency Management spokesperson Keli Cain said.
In Wichita County, in northern Texas, several hundred people were told to evacuate or prepare to do so as two wind-whipped wildfires spread.
‘I was definitely being crushed’
Mayfield is the scene of some of the most extensive damage, where more than 100 employees working at a candle factory were caught in the path of a tornado. At least eight people there died as the building was ripped apart.
Jim Douglas was in so much pain as he lay crushed beneath what he believes was 15 feet of debris that he was “praying that God would take me.” Then rescue workers reached him.
“They’re heroes. And not because they saved me, it’s because they saved a lot of people,” Douglas told CNN.
In an interview from his hospital bed, where he’s recovering from nerve damage and slowly regaining the use of his arms and legs, Douglas described how an interior wall fell on top of him, hitting him in the head and throwing him to the ground.
“It was so quick. It was like different layers would come down and I could feel my body would like compact more,” he said. “I was definitely being crushed.”
When rescue workers arrived about an hour later, “they couldn’t have done a better job of extracting me,” he said.
Douglas, who has worked at the factory for two and a half years, thought about leaving as the storm approached but decided to ride it out at the factory after talking with his family.
He said once he heals, he plans to resume working.
“Eventually I’m going to be walking and I’ll be working somewhere, I promise you that,” Douglas said.
Deaths reported include 2-month-old
Additional deaths are being reported in western Kentucky following the string of storms.
Two-month-old Oaklynn Koon died Monday from the injuries she sustained when a tornado hit her grandmother’s home in Dawson Springs, her paternal grandmother Audrey Carman told CNN.
The infant, her two brothers, and her parents were sheltering at her maternal grandmother’s house when the tornado hit.
Koon’s parents tried to protect their children by making them hide in the bathtub and covering them with couch cushions, but the tornado picked up the home and the family landed on the other side of the neighbor’s house, Carman said.
“We didn’t have much time with her, but we loved the time we got to spend with her,” Carman told CNN.
About 70 miles east of Dawson Springs, six family members lost their lives when a tornado hit their home in Bowling Green, a relative told CNN.
Rachael Brown, 36, and Steven Brown, 35, were with their four children and Rachael’s mother, Victoria Smith, 64, when a tornado hit their home.
The three adults and three of the children – Nariah Cayshelle, 16, Nolynn, 8, and Nyles, 4 – were killed in the tornado, Rachael Brown’s aunt, Dornicho Jackson McGee, told CNN.
Nyssa Brown, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, is still missing, McGee told CNN. McGee is Nyssa’s great aunt.
“They were very family-oriented. They loved their family. They loved their kids,” McGee said.
Officials are welcoming efforts to help those in need. The Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund has raised more than $9.89 million dollars for Kentuckians, Gov. Beshear announced Tuesday. Donations can be made on their website.
CNN’s Brynn Gingras, Sarah Boxer, Caroll Alvarado, Jenn Selva, Tina Burnside, Nikki Carvajal, Amy Simonson and Joseph Bonheim contributed to this report.