At least 74 people in Kentucky have died after a weekend tornado outbreak across eight states flattened homes and businesses in the Midwest and South.
Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters the death toll figures come from emergency management officials and may differ from what county coroners are reporting.
The governor said at a Monday afternoon news conference the numbers will move because “we have several of our towns in rubble.”
In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, 109 residents remain unaccounted for, Beshear said. At least 14 people have been killed in four other states – six in Illinois, four in Tennessee and two each in Arkansas and Missouri – officials have said.
Beshear said 95 National Guard troops are doing fatality and missing person searches.
“We hope that they don’t find them. We hope someone connects to them and they’re out there and we just don’t know where they are yet,” he said. “Maybe they don’t have cell service.”
Earlier he described the destruction, saying more than 1,000 houses have been obliterated and one tornado traveled at least 200 miles.
“When this tornado hit, it didn’t just take a roof off, which is what we’ve seen in the past,” Beshear said.
“It exploded the whole house. People, animals, the rest – just gone.”
Family businesses are demolished
Just five hours before a tornado shredded the city of Mayfield, children had packed Gibson’s Pharmacy for the annual visit from Santa Claus.
“The lobby was full of families. My kids were in there,” said Sam Brown, whose father purchased the pharmacy 38 years ago – the year Brown was born.
“That’s actually the very last video I have of the property, a lobby full of kids sitting on Santa’s lap.”
Brown and his family survived the tornado. But he said the pharmacy was reduced to “a war scene. It’s just totally demolished.”
The family, however, is still committed to getting medicine to neighbors quickly.
“We have another location open on the other side of town. We’re wanting to be up and running today … to service the community the best we can. We’ve been working nonstop to get it going.”
Indianapolis Fire Department Division Chief Tom Neal, who’s leading the search and rescue team deployed to the candle factory in Mayfield, said authorities are confident that no employees remain in the rubble.
Eight people were found dead after the building collapsed, and because of the amount of destruction, officials were worried the toll might increase.
More donations (including blood) are needed
In just two days, donors gave $4 million to the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, Beshear said.
“Help keeps pouring in from all over the county. Thank you to everyone. We feel your love here,” the governor said.
He said the fund’s first expenditure will be to provide $5,000 for burial expenses to families who lost loved ones during the storm. The state has requested funeral homes not charge the families of the storm victims beyond that.
Beshear said no families will have to apply, as the state will be reaching out directly.
But more help is needed, said state Sen. Whitney Westerfield.
“We still need blood donations and still could use donations” to the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, Westerfield said.
“I’d encourage you, (if) you have spare room this Christmas, give to western Kentucky.”
The American Red Cross has eight shelters set up and is providing relief to nearly 200 people, the group’s Kentucky CEO Steven Cunanan said Sunday.
Cunanan said the Red Cross’ main goal is to provide food and care to those forced out of their homes by the tornadoes. “We have to help them get their lives back and help them get to a sense of normalcy again,” he said.
The emotional toll of having your life upended by a natural disaster is also an important consideration, Cunanan said. “I’ve seen that on every disaster I’ve been on. They’re shell-shocked. They don’t know where to turn.”
Several state parks have also been opened to help house families who lost everything, Beshear said Sunday.
“We are taking them in,” Beshear said. “We are trying to guarantee everyone a two-week stay, so they’re not worried about tomorrow. They can worry about finding their relatives, making sure their kids have enough to eat.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is on the ground assisting after President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration over the weekend. The move allows for grants and low-cost loans to be put toward housing and home repairs in affected areas.
Biden said he will visit on Wednesday to survey damage from tornadoes.
When rescuers can’t go door-to-door because ‘there are no doors’
In parts of Kentucky, it’s impossible to figure out where porches and front doors once stood.
“I’ve got towns that are gone – that are just, I mean, gone,” the governor told CNN on Sunday. “You go door-to-door to check on people and see if they’re okay. There are no doors … it’s devastating.”
About 75% of Dawson Springs has been wiped out, Mayor Chris Smiley said.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said Smiley, who’s lived in the small town for 63 years. “It’s just devastating.”
More than 100 people have been reported missing in Dawson Springs, said Nick Bailey, director of emergency management in Hopkins County. But officials hope most of them left town and just haven’t checked in yet.
But “hundreds and hundreds” in the town of nearly 3,000 people no longer have a place to live, Bailey said.
“Almost an entire city has been displaced at this point,” he said.
And those whose homes are still standing probably won’t have power for up to a month, Bailey said.
The damage wasn’t just to buildings. Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that they lost several large transmission towers and it will take weeks to months to replace them.
There were more than 25,000 power outages in the state as of 9 p.m. ET, according to the tracking website PowerOutage.us.
50 tornadoes in 8 states
While Kentucky may have suffered the most extensive damage, at least 50 tornadoes were reported in seven other states over the weekend, the National Weather Service said.
As of Sunday, EF-3 tornadoes were identified in Defiance, Missouri; Edwardsville, Illinois; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Saloma, Kentucky; and a swath of Kentucky between Cayce and Beaver Creek.
In Illinois, at least six people died when an Amazon warehouse collapsed in Edwardsville, Fire Chief James Whiteford said.
Those six victims ranged from 26 to 62 years old, the Edwardsville Police Department said.
One was identified as Clayton Cope, a 29-year-old US Navy veteran. He had worked at Amazon for just over a year as a maintenance mechanic, his mother, Carla Cope, said.
The young man’s father also worked at the facility in the same position.
“Had (Clay) not been there, my husband would have,” Carla Cope said.
An Amazon representative said a tornado warning siren sounded 11 minutes before the storm’s arrival.
“Managers were on the loudspeakers telling people to get to the shelter-in-place area. They were also being guided by other managers and other employees who were trying to get everybody to that safe location,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNN affiliate KSDK Sunday.
She said employees sheltered in two unspecified safe areas. Nantel said dispatchers also contacted Amazon delivery drivers in the area and told them to shelter in place.
In Arkansas, the storm struck a Dollar General store in Leachville and killed assistant manager June Pennington, Mississippi County spokesman Tom Henry said.
In the nearby city of Monette, at least one person was killed at a nursing home damaged by a tornado, Mayor Bob Blankenship said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it was a “miracle” only one person died at the nursing home.
“As I went to that facility, it was like heaven sucked up the roof and all the contents of it,” he said.
“And it’s just a miracle with 67 residents that we only lost one there. And that’s because of the heroic efforts by the staff and also the fact that we had 20 minutes of warning.”
More severe weather may be on the way
As officials focus on the immediate needs of tornado victims, forecasters are keeping an eye on the possibility of more severe weather in the region.
While it’s still early, some areas impacted by the tornadoes might see the same type of weather pattern this week, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.
That could include warming temperatures followed by another possible risk of severe weather by the weekend
CNN’s Jenn Selva, Gregory Lemos, Carma Hassan, Jason Hanna, Ashley Killough, Laura Studley, Kiely Westhoff, Susannah Cullinane, Eric Levenson and Amir Vera contributed to this report.