Rescue and recovery efforts underway in Kentucky, other states hit by tornadoes

The death toll has reached 74 in Kentucky, three nights after a swarm of tornadoes struck. At least 14 people died in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee, but the worst was in Mayfield, in far southwestern Kentucky. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The death toll has reached 74 in Kentucky, three nights after a swarm of tornadoes struck. At least 14 people died in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee, but the worst was in Mayfield in far Southwestern Kentucky.

    William Brangham is in the area, and begins our coverage.

  • William Brangham:

    This is what's remains of Michael and Debra Lynn Long's home after a series of powerful tornadoes ripped through Kentucky and five other states on Friday night.

    Dozens of Kentuckians are confirmed dead, thousands remain without power, and countless homes and buildings across the region have been completely leveled.

  • Debra Lynn Long, Tornado Survivor:

    We heard a sound that sounded like a train coming and said, we have got to go. And it sounded like the wrath of God coming down on you.

  • William Brangham:

    Really?

  • Debra Lynn Long:

    It was horrific.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael Long says he and Debra Lynn survived the terrifying night down in their basement, clinging to the walls of their house in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

    Once the storm had passed, he told his wife to brace herself for what she was about to see.

  • Michael Long, Tornado Survivor:

    So, I told her, I said, you got to be prepared, because I think, when we go upstairs, there's not going to be nothing. And, sure enough, it wasn't much left.

  • William Brangham:

    This was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the U.S. in a decade. While deaths have been confirmed in five states, Kentucky suffered by far the worst damage and the greatest loss of life.

    One tornado in Kentucky was on the ground for more than 220 miles, leaving a violent trail of destruction in its wake. In Kentucky, search-and-rescue operations are ongoing, and dogs are being deployed, hoping to find the more than 100 people who still remain missing.

  • Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY):

    Just a few more facts about those we have lost.

  • William Brangham:

    Kentucky's Governor Andy Beshear got emotional today describing those who've died.

  • Gov. Andy Beshear:

    Of the ones that we know, the age — the age range is 5 months to 86 years. And six are younger than 18.

  • William Brangham:

    Rescuers are also searching through the rubble of a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, where more than 100 people were working an overnight shift when a twister hit.

    But Governor Beshear said the factory's death toll could end up being lower than originally feared.

  • Gov. Andy Beshear:

    Eight are dead. We found eight bodies, and eight are missing. We feared much, much worse. And, again, I pray that it is accurate.

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden has declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: I want you to know that this administration has made it clear to every governor, whatever they need, when they need it, when they need it, make it known to me, and we will get it to them as rapidly, as rapidly as we can.

  • William Brangham:

    Elsewhere in Mayfield, workers continue to clean out buildings downtown, as residents struggle to grasp the devastation.

  • Wayne Flint, Restaurant Owner:

    This was a restaurant right here. And as, you can see, there's nothing left of it.

  • William Brangham:

    Wayne Flint owned a family restaurant in this small Western Kentucky town. He will have to rebuild his business from scratch.

  • Wayne Flint:

    We're just going to clean it up, and throw it all away, and start again. That's all any of us can do here, because there is nothing worth keeping.

  • William Brangham:

    In Illinois, one of the tornadoes blasted through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, killing at least six workers. Search efforts are still under way for additional victims.

    Most of the people on-site at the warehouse were contractors, brought on for the Web giant's Christmas rush. Back in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, Michael Long told us he was able to recover one of his most cherished possessions:

  • Michael Long:

    I mean, things like this matters to me. It was my uncle's during World War II.

  • William Brangham:

    The Purple Heart his uncle earned when he was killed in World War II.

    For Debra Lynn, who lost her first home to Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, this second loss feels like a curse.

  • Debra Lynn Long:

    So, I feel like, most of my life, I haven't had a home.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael admits that the road ahead will be hard. He's not worried about what's been lost, he's grateful for what he still has.

  • Michael Long:

    I still got my granddaughters. I got my daughters. I got my grandson and my wife, and everybody's alive, and we're OK. We can rebuild.

  • William Brangham:

    We can rebuild — that is the thing that we have heard from so many people around here. As long as my family is safe, as long as I am healthy and alive, things are just things. We can replace these houses. We can replace these businesses.

    Given the extent of the destruction here, it is amazing that we haven't seen more people lose their lives. I know those numbers are still changing, but it does seem that the early warnings that this community and this whole region got from meteorologists and their local news and local officials convinced enough people to get out or to seriously hunker down.

    And that's why they're alive today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the destruction, William, is just beyond describing.

    But we saw that you and your team also were in Mayfield, Kentucky, today. Give us more of a sense of what you are seeing there.

  • William Brangham:

    You are absolutely right, Judy.

    I mean, I don't even know if this video that we have been filming conveys How bad the destruction is. We are in the town of Mayfield right now. And it is like an angry, vengeful giant tore through this community, smashing buildings, tearing down power lines, uprooting trees, throwing cars.

    We saw a car yesterday that no one in the given neighborhood knew where that car had come from. It had traveled on the wind that far. I talked to a guy today who was a civilian contractor in Iraq. And he said: Of all the bombings campaigns I saw, none of the devastation looked like it looks here in Kentucky.

    So it is just a — it's really hard to put into words what this community is going through and how they are trying to bounce back from that.

    There is, of course, an army of volunteers and officials and people trying to put the power lines back up and put Christmas trees and wreathes back on the doors. But it is a very, very scary proposition for a lot of them.

    I talked with a local county commissioner named Tyler Goodman earlier today. Here is how he described the road ahead.

  • Tyler Goodman, Commissioner, Graves County, Kentucky:

    It is difficult, because, if you look around, you kind of think, where do I start?

    You have got buildings that have been here for over 100, 150 years, and weathered storms and homes and businesses. And to see the destruction like that, it is hard to think, well, how are we going to deal with this in a week, a month, a year?

    But I think things will return to normal. It will just take some time and take a lot of support.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy. There is the support that is here. They are overwhelmed with support. But it is going to it be a very, very long road.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So hard to see all of this.

    William, we know President Biden has declared — has signed emergency declaration for Kentucky and other states. We also know that he's asking federal agencies to look into any link between these terrible tornadoes and climate change.

    What is known at this point about the link there?

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, this is a big focus of research.

    And the evidence right now is just not that clear. We do know that climate change and a warming atmosphere is driving heat waves and intensifying storms and forest fires and droughts. The evidence for those things is quite clear.

    The evidence for tornadoes and making tornadoes worse is not as clear. It may very well be, but we just don't know yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William Brangham reporting for us from Kentucky, thank you very much.

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