At least 88 people have been confirmed dead across five U.S. states after a swarm of tornadoes ripped through communities in the South and Midwest over the weekend.
Between Friday night and early Saturday morning, at least 44 tornadoes were reported across nine states, which is unusual for December in the United States. Kentucky was the hardest hit, with at least 74 confirmed fatalities, according to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who cautioned that figure is “fluid” and “will change.”
The governor, who lost two relatives, fought back tears as he revealed the ages of the known victims. According to him, 18 bodies have yet to be identified.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, there are 69 tornado-related fatalities in the United States each year. On March 27, 1890, Kentucky was hit by the deadliest twister on record. There were 76 fatalities. Between Friday and Saturday, Kentucky was hit by at least five tornadoes, including one that stayed on the ground for 200 miles, “devastating anything in its path,” according to Beshear.
At least 18 counties in Kentucky reported fatalities and 18 counties reported property damage. According to Beshear, approximately 30,000 homes in the southeastern state were still without power as of Monday morning.
Beshear acknowledged that rebuilding from what he called the “worst tornado event” in Kentucky’s history would take time, but he doubted that it would have been possible to be better prepared.
According to Beshear, at least 300 members of the Kentucky National Guard have been deployed across the state to assist local authorities in clearing debris and searching for survivors and victims.
Beshear told reporters Monday afternoon that more than 20 people had died in Graves County, Kentucky, where Mayfield is the county seat. According to the governor, another 17 deaths were reported in Hopkins County, 11 in Muhlenberg County, 15 in Warren County, four in Caldwell County, one in Marshall County, one in Taylor County, one in Fulton County, one in Lyon County, and one in Franklin County.
According to Beshear, the most recent confirmed death was that of a government contractor whose vehicle was pushed off a road and crashed during the storm. He said there are about 109 people still missing in Kentucky, including 81 in Hopkins County and 22 in Warren County.
E.J. Meiman, director of Louisville Emergency Management, told reporters on Monday evening that the factory’s owners “verified that they have accounted for every occupant” who was present during the storm.
Kyanna Parsons, one of the survivors, recalled hunkering down at the candle factory with her coworkers when the tornado hit. She claimed that she felt a gust of wind and that her ears popped. According to her, the lights flickered before going out completely, and the building’s roof suddenly collapsed.
The following morning, Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said she was at the site of the destroyed factory. She remembered seeing first responders from Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, which was more than 200 miles away, “who had already gotten there, who had gotten in their trucks as quickly as they could and come to help us.”
According to the mayor, her city lost its sewage treatment plant and a water tower, as well as many homes and businesses. According to O’Nan, Mayfield still lacks power, natural gas, and running water.
“Wonderful donations are meeting the immediate needs of our city people and responders,” she said. “But our infrastructure is damaged so severely that getting that up and running is our absolute greatest priority at this time.”
O’Nan, who lives about four blocks from the city’s downtown area, said she knew this storm would be “different” after watching the weather forecast on the news last week.
When the twister hit on Friday night, O’Nan said she took shelter in her basement and waited until she heard it pass overhead.
O’Nan said she received a call from the city’s fire chief a few minutes later, saying he couldn’t get the firetrucks or ambulances out of the bay at the fire station because the doors wouldn’t open. According to O’Nan, he eventually had to attach a chain to his truck to pry the doors open so that firefighters and emergency personnel could be dispatched.