Thousands without heat, water after tornadoes kill dozens in U.S.
By Bruce Schreiner and Dylan Lovan
MAYFIELD, Ky. — 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 warned Monday, as officials struggled to restore services after a swarm of twisters leveled neighborhoods and killed dozens of people in five states.
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, 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 highs in the 50s and a low below freezing Monday without any utilities.
“We lost a water tower, so we have no water within the city limits. All the power was cut just for safety reasons after everything fell,” O’Nan told NBC’s “Today” show. “And the natural gas has been turned off because of so many leaks. So we have no resources.”
“The resources are gonna take a long time to be restored here,” she added.
Across the state, tens of thousands of people were without power. National Guard members went house to house, checking on people and helping to remove debris. Cadaver dogs searched for victims.
Kentucky was the worst-hit by far in the cluster of twisters across several states, remarkable because they came at a time of year when cold weather normally limits tornadoes. 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 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 Kentucky Gov. Andy 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.
Initially as many as 70 people were feared dead in the candle factory, 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 “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 tires.”
O’Nan said historic downtown churches have been destroyed — just a week after she and others 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.
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 10 feet 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 200 miles (322 kilometers), authorities said.
In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution center 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 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.”
Associated Press writers Kristin Hall and Claire Galofaro in Mayfield; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Seth Borenstein, Zeke Miller and Dino Hazell in Washington; and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.