Thousands without heat, water after U.S. tornadoes kill dozens

December 13, 2021
Thousands without heat, water after U.S. tornadoes kill dozens
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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 levelled neighbourhoods 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, Ky., 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 a low temperature 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.

Tamara Yekinni hugs a friend outside a shelter in Wingo, Ky., on Sunday after residents were displaced by a tornado that caused severe damage in the area. Yekinni is an employee at a candle factory where employees were killed and injured by the storm. (Robert Bumsted/The Associated Pres)

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.

Lower death toll than feared at candle factory

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.”

An American flag hangs from a damaged tree on Sunday in Mayfield in the wake of a devastating tornado. (Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press)

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.

Ripped off doors

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 three metres 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 322 kilometres, authorities said.

In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution centre 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.

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