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The “most severe tornado event in Kentucky’s history” is believed to have claimed the lives of at least 70 people, Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference in Graves County late Saturday morning.
He said at a news conference later in Bowling Green that the death toll “is very likely going to be over 100 people.”
Beshear said earlier Saturday that four likely tornadoes wreaked havoc on the state with one traveling for more than 200 miles in Western Kentucky, “something we have never seen before.”
More than a dozen Kentucky counties have reported damage from the storms, he said.
Deaths have been reported in multiple counties.
The hardest hit appears to be Graves County in far Western Kentucky, where Mayfield, the county seat, has been devastated, the governor said.
A collapsed roof at a Mayfield candle factory with about 110 people inside resulted in mass casualties and will account for the largest loss of life in the state as a result of the storms, he said.
As of just before noon, Beshear said about 40 of the 110 people inside the plant had been rescued. The last successful rescue there was at about 3:30 a.m., Beshear said, though he said “we still hope and pray that there’s some opportunity for others.”
Eleven people died in Muhlenberg County, Coroner Larry Vincent said.
A 42-year-old woman died in Taylor County, where 70 homes were damaged and destroyed, Emergency Management Director Ronnie Dooley said.
Other counties reporting deaths and injuries were Hopkins, Marshall, Warren, and Caldwell, Beshear said Saturday. Up to 10 counties may have casualties, he said.
Widespread damage was reported in Bowling Green, where the Warren County coroner said a dozen people had died. An estimated 500 homes and 100 businesses were damaged or destroyed, Beshear said.
The National Weather Service in Louisville said evidence of damage from an EF-3 tornado with estimated wind speeds of 150 mph had been found by its survey team in Bowling Green.
The weather service office in Paducah said in a tweet that crews were out doing storm damage surveys Saturday, but that it will take some time to get a rating on the intensity of the tornado that hit Mayfield.
More than 98,000 Kentucky customers were without power as of 4:32 p.m. Saturday, according to the website PowerOutage.us.
Before midnight Friday, Beshear declared a state of emergency and activated 181 members of the Kentucky National Guard for search and extraction and debris clearance. The state Transportation Cabinet mobilized its heavy equipment to help clear debris and will be assisted by the Guard and the Division of Forestry.
“State police has been working all night to save lives,” he said early Saturday, adding that other emergency responders would be providing assistance and that two tractor-trailers filled with water were headed to Western Kentucky.
Beshear also has asked for an immediate federal emergency declaration, which President Joe Biden approved Saturday afternoon.
Biden’s declaration covers Breckenridge, Bullitt, Caldwell, Fulton, Graves, Grayson, Hickman, Hopkins, Lyon, Meade, Muhlenberg, Ohio, Shelby, Spencer, and Warren counties.
“FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency,” a news release from the White House stated. “Emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent Federal funding.”
Beshear said he spoke Saturday with Biden, along with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, about the request.
“This will bring additional resources to Western Kentucky counties devastated by these tornadoes and allow for quicker reimbursements,” Beshear said. “I appreciate the President’s swift response during our time of need. Now we can get to work supporting our people as we recover.”
The state also set up the Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, which will accept donations for communities in need.
Beshear also said people who want to help can do so by giving blood and staying off the roads in areas hit by the tornadoes.
Beshear reported that counties with likely damage and debris as of 4 a.m. included Fulton, Hickman, Graves, Marshall, Lyon, Caldwell, Hopkins, Muhlenberg, Ohio, Breckinridge, Owen, Spencer, Shelby, Christian, Logan, Warren, Edmonson, Taylor and Marion.
“This has been one of the toughest nights in Kentucky history,” Beshear said at a 5 a.m. Saturday update from the Capitol with Michael Dossett, director of Kentucky Emergency Management, and Kentucky Adjutant General Hal Lamberton.
The governor later went on to visit Mayfield, Bowling Green and Dawson Springs, where his parents are from.
A block from his grandparents’ house, Beshear said, “there’s no house standing, and we don’t know where those people are.”
“They’re going to lose a whole lot of people,” Beshear said of the town.
Dossett said this tornado event may surpass the 1974 “super” outbreak “as one of the most deadly in Kentucky history.” That outbreak killed 315 and injured more than 5,800 in the eastern United States, including 77 deaths in Kentucky.
He said rescue and search teams were in operation “even before the winds stopped blowing.”
In Graves County, that effort was made even more challenging because the city’s police station and main fire station were destroyed, officials said at Beshear’s late-morning news conference.
Beshear said hundreds of successful rescues were made in the aftermath of the twisters. And search operations were ongoing.
Jeremy Creason, Mayfield’s fire chief and Emergency Medical Services director, said at the news conference that the main focus in Mayfield remains at the candle plant, where “a steady flow of walking wounded” emerged from the rubble overnight.
“The structure is just a pile of bent metal and steel,” he said. “We had to at times crawl over casualties to get to live victims.”
Beshear described a scene where cars and huge metal drums were scattered atop the area where the building once stood.
“It’s pretty awful to witness,” he said.
Officials said resources were pouring in from surrounding areas, including ambulances, generators, extra police vehicles and police radios to fill the void left by those lost in the storm.
Emergency shelters have been set up in high schools and National Guard Armories in the area, and the Kentucky state parks were preparing to make rooms available for people in need.
Mayfield Police Chief Nathan Kent said a curfew would be in place beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday for the city of Mayfield and in other areas in Graves County that were in the path of the storm.
It appears the storm is out of the same weather system that originated in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The state’s emergency operations center in Frankfort opened and started receiving calls as of 8 p.m. Friday, said Dossett.
Lamberton said Guard members started mobilizing after midnight.
State police said they planned to visit homes in Graves and surrounding counties to make sure no one was trapped inside. In addition to helping with rescue and recovery, they said they’d help with “safeguarding vulnerable property” in storm-ravaged areas.
“The public is strongly urged to avoid the city limits of Mayfield to allow for fluid emergency operations,” state police said in a news release Saturday morning.
Beshear said hospitals in the area were “in good shape” treating the injured, even though some have been busy with COVID-19 patients.
The governor signed an executive order prohibiting price gouging, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron said he had activated the state’s price-gouging hotline, 888-432-9257 and ag.ky.gov/pricegouging, where Kentuckians can report instances of suspected price gouging.
Asked if advance warning of the storm was sufficient, Beshear said, “I do believe there was advance warning, but this is a storm the likes of which we have never seen in terms of what this tornado did.”
He said he had family members in the area he could not reach, noting that his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear was from Dawson Springs. He cautioned that “people will need help for months.”
Herald-Leader staff writers Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Monica Kast, Austin Horn, Bill Estep and Christopher Leach contributed to this report.
A violent tornado has raked through Mayfield, #KYwx tonight. Numerous folks were hurt & trapped or missing inside the Mayfield Consumer Products building. S&R Continues. Building completely destroyed with vehicles in the roof of it. Governor reporting 50 fatalities in town. pic.twitter.com/LuzwL4xPwC— Brett Adair (@AlaStormTracker) December 11, 2021
This story was originally publishedDecember 11, 2021 6:35 AM.