Communities smashed by historic storms take stock of mass destruction

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MAYFIELD, Ky. – As the temperature dipped well below freezing and frost spread over car windows, about 150 men and women shuffled Sunday morning into the First Baptist Church on the corner of South and First streets.

Many wore Carhartt vests, carpenter jeans, and steel-toed boots, work clothes passing as Sunday best in these extraordinary times. Parishioners say the church’s footprint forms the largest cross in Graves County, and as a tornado blasted through this town of 10,000 people on Friday night, some of its stained-glass windows blew out and a hole opened in its roof.

But it was largely spared, as was the pastor, Wes Fowler, who endured the storm in a tunnel beneath the church grounds and led the Sunday service. The rest of the town was not as fortunate.

Across a battered region, a public reckoning with unimaginable loss began Sunday, as survivors dug out homes and businesses, searched with diminishing hope for loved ones, and mourned others who died in the tornado’s path.

The official death toll stands at 13, but with search operations still unfolding, it is certain to grow. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and other state officials declined on Sunday to offer more firm updates to the casualty count, but Beshear said he believed that at least 50 had died and that the final number would probably be more than 100 – the majority from this little town in western Kentucky.

The need is evident everywhere. State and medical officials pleaded for blood donations, warning that in addition to the scores of dead, there are likely to be even more injuries.

In freezing temperatures, nearly 90,000 homes and businesses remained without power across western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee, mauled Friday night and into Saturday by winds that blew one Mayfield family’s photograph to a town 100 miles away.

[Photo from tornado-damaged home lands almost 130 miles away]

Gas stations along Highway 58 outside Mayfield were dark, as were homes scattered along county roads. Maintenance crews had begun to set up cherry pickers along the roadside to start the long work of repairing severed power lines and snapped electrical poles. Kentucky officials opened more than a dozen warming centers by nightfall.

Many simply prayed.

While a small choir practiced near the altar of the First Baptist Church, Grant Samples, standing with fellow parishioners between lines of yellow caution tape, remarked on the turnout, which was larger than he would have expected with many roads still cluttered and closed by debris.

[December tornadoes aren’t rare, but Friday’s outbreak was something totally different]

Samples is a 29-year-old welder, his wife Katie, a 29-year-old teacher, and the two met in the pews of First Baptist and later married there. Huddling in a closet with their two little boys, the couple survived the storm and now face unanswerable questions.

“It’s hard to explain to a 5-year-old what’s going on and why it happened,” Samples said. “We don’t want him to be scared of every storm.”

The scope of the damage caused by the devastatingly powerful December tornadoes stretched across six states, leaving many dismayed by the potency of the weather and the loss of life.

A sign outside a Methodist Church near Mayfield captured the powerlessness many here felt in surveying what just a few days ago were busy towns, now flatted and twisted beyond easy identification.

“Pray for the storm victims,” the sign read.

Michael Kayse, an 18-year-old Mayfield resident, said he was at his friends’ house when the tornado struck. He said a tree fell and damaged a gas line near his house, causing a potentially dangerous leak.

[Ways to give and help survivors of the tornadoes in Kentucky, Illinois and elsewhere]

Kayse said he slept in the family’s vehicle with his mother even though debris had damaged the windshield. Two friends stood next to him at the shelter, explaining that they had few answers to questions about the storm’s aftermath.

First responders “literally asked everybody to leave because of how bad the debris and houses were,” said Suni Hernandez, 27. “One apartment is completely gone.”

Hernandez said she was waiting to hear from her sister about why her grandmother was in a hospital but didn’t have phone access. Hernandez’s boyfriend, Justin Lyel, 19, hadn’t heard whether a cousin working at a heavily damaged candle factory had been found.

As for next steps, Hernandez wasn’t sure. “We don’t even know how long we’re going to be here,” Hernandez said.

Many of the deaths occurred at a family-run candle factory here called Mayfield Consumer Products. The building was leveled with about 110 people working a night shift inside. Rescuers have saved at least 40 people, as aerial images showed the remnants of the factory amid other storm debris. State officials said the rest are likely dead.

[Spokesman: 8 factory workers dead, 8 missing from tornado]

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Beshear said “barrels of corrosive chemicals” were seeping through. “It’ll be a miracle if anyone else is found alive in it,” he added.

Dozens were working the night shift when the tornado hit, although company officials said some employees may have clocked out early.

The plant sits in an industrial area of town, next to a Hutson tractor dealer and across the road from a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant, which residents said is probably the biggest employer in town.

Chief executive Troy Propes said he was “heartbroken” by the deaths and devastation and was assisting first responders with recovery efforts. An emergency fund has been established for the factory victims.

“Our company is family-owned and our employees, some who have worked with us for many years, are cherished. We’re immediately establishing an emergency fund to assist our employees and their families,” he said in a statement.

Melissa Crouch last heard from her mother, Linda Panameno, through a video she sent by phone from inside the candle factory as the storm bore down on the town. Panameno worked on the production line, and the video she shared showed employees taking shelter in a bathroom.

“And that’s the last thing I heard from her,” Crouch said. “Nothing from the company.”

Crouch is holding out some hope. Several of her mother’s friends at work say they spotted Panameno at the hospital. Some told Crouch her mother escaped with them, but that she had a broken wrist and possibly leg and back injuries.

The assurances are not enough. Crouch, who lives in Norfolk, is 30 weeks pregnant and cannot travel to Mayfield to check the hospitals or shelters in person.

“I just feel like I need to talk to her and know that she’s OK,” Crouch said. “I just want to find her.”

The tornadoes reached as far north as Illinois, where a search effort is underway at an Amazon warehouse where at least six people died. In Arkansas, at least two people were killed, including a man in his 80s, after a tornado struck a nursing home. Tennessee reported three weather-related deaths and Missouri at least two, near St. Louis.

On Sunday, police identified the six people who were killed after a section of an Amazon distribution warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., caved in during the tornado.

They were Austin J. McEwen, 26; Deandre S. Morrow, 28; Clayton Lynn Cope, 29; Etheria S. Hebb, 34; Larry E. Virden, 46; and Kevin D. Dickey, 62. Morrow and Hebb were from St. Louis. Dickey, Cope, Virden and McEwen were from across Illinois, according to a news release from the Edwardsville Police Department.

Officials said the fire department is still clearing debris from the site and is working with Amazon to “account for all of their personnel.” According to the release, there are no new missing-person reports from the site, but the search efforts will continue “to ensure that there are no additional victims.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

During a Saturday news conference, Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said, “Estimates are that the recovery portion of the incident will take about three more days.”

The reckoning also revealed heroism.

In Trumann, Ark., Kim Gay, a licensed nursing professional, was the only staff member on duty at the Quail Run Health and Rehab elder-care facility on Friday night.

Aware of the storms approaching, Gay consulted with her bosses about what to do with the 35 residents there.

“You decide,” she was told.

Gay noticed the holiday wrapping paper decorating the residents’ rooms was fluttering. She then felt a breeze. That was when she made her decision.

She herded the residents to the building lobby, some of whom were irritated that they had to leave their rooms.

“Just 20 more minutes, y’all,” she told them. But the tornado “came 20 minutes sooner than I expected.”

The residents huddled on the floor while the building’s walls pulsated and shook. Outside, the center’s van tumbled side-over-side in the parking lot three times, Gay said. When it was over, the residents were all cleared out, unscathed.

“I didn’t want to take a chance,” she said Sunday, while helping her mother clear out the damage to her house. “I’m just glad everyone is OK.” The downtown area of Trumann on Sunday morning was still a mangle of downed power lines, shattered glass and damaged cars strewn about as if they were children’s toys.

To the northeast, Leachville offered another panorama of tornado wreckage Sunday. Businesses along the Main Street corridor had windows blown out, with portions of their siding flapping in a gentle breeze. Utility workers attended to broken power lines while aid groups checked on residents whose homes were destroyed.

Garris Street was one of the hardest-hit areas in town. On that block of wood-paneled homes, Patricia Austin, 71, and family members carried water-damaged family photos and other lost items from her house, whose roof had been torn off.

Austin was chatting over fresh coffee Friday evening, when the tornado barreled through.

“If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been in my house,” Austin said about her neighbor. “She basically saved my life.”

Austin appreciated her luck, but she was still heavy with grief over the loss of her co-worker and friend at the Dollar General.

June Pennington, an assistant manager at the store, died while shielding another worker when a wall collapsed on them. The other worker had both his legs broken, said Austin, who worked as a cashier there.

She and Pennington were close, she said.

“I called her ‘Junebug,’ ” Austin said.

A few days ago, they talked about what they would get each other for Christmas. Pennington asked for a tall, good-looking man.

“I said: ‘That’s a tough order, but I’ll see what I can do.’ ” She laughed, then cried as a Red Cross truck passed. “She saved his life,” Austin said of Pennington. “It cost her hers.”

On the edge of Mayfield, the parking lot of Arrowhead Camper Sales foreshadows the destruction ahead with crumpled metal scattered around overturned RVs. Closer to town, pine trees have been sheared of their tops, many of which landed on homes and garages.

Volunteers with Bread of Life, a Lowes, Ky.-based humanitarian effort, were busy by early Sunday with loaders and chain saws as they cleared three toppled pine trees outside the home of an elderly couple whose garage was damaged.

Martin Benzing, a volunteer from Paducah, pulled into a staging area in the parking lot of the damaged Emmanuel Baptist Church with chain saws, gas cans and leaf blowers. He was part of a crew of about a dozen people who planned to spend the day clearing dangerous or obstructing debris from people’s properties.

In the parking lot, parishioners Joe Mack and Robin Brunswick sat in their red Mazda pickup surveying the damage to their church. The couple, like almost everyone else in town, had no power or water.

Mack regretted throwing out his battery-powered radio when they downsized, saying that with scant battery life on one cellphone, they were cut off from the news and had no idea how high the death toll had climbed.

They said they were among the more fortunate ones: Their home was minimally affected, and they have children within driving distance with whom they can stay if water and power aren’t restored soon.

“We moved a few years ago from one little town that didn’t have anything to another little town that had some little stores and all,” he said of Mayfield. “And now there’s nothing here, either.”

Ronald Hayes was in the basement of his apartment building with about a dozen other people when the tornado hit. Above them, they heard a shrieking whistle. A portion of the basement ceiling collapsed.

When they emerged, he could see that his third-floor apartment was wrecked, the roof gone, the windows smashed. “My living room was in my bedroom and my bedroom was outside,” said Hayes, 60.

His car, a white Pontiac Grand Prix, had been crushed by debris.

“If we hadn’t had a basement, all of us would be dead,” he said.

Hayes, along with more than 100 others, is now about 10 miles south of Mayfield in a shelter set up in the community center of a Baptist church. Most have no electricity or no home at all.

Hayes has a change of clothes and the white mattress he’s sleeping on. What he needs most is his medicine – he’s a diabetic who suffers from lung disease – and volunteers have already managed to bring in an oxygen machine for him to use.

“I don’t know what’s next,” Hayes said. “I’ll just do the best I can to survive.”

Volunteers at the shelter said they had received huge support from local businesses. A nearby Walmart told them to come take whatever they needed. Applebee’s, Sonic and Chick Fil-A sent meals.

“We’re blessed that we can come together like this,” said Heather Payne, 43. “But it’s just devastating.”

The Washington Post’s Joanna Slater, Abigail Hauslohner and Kim Bellware contributed to this report.

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