Thousands Without Heat, Water After Tornadoes Kill Dozens

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) -
The front steps of a house are all that remain after a tornado in Dawson Springs, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

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 leveled neighborhoods and killed dozens of people in five states.

Authorities are still tallying the devastation from Friday night’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, Kentucky, than first thought.

“This is a tough morning… but it’s okay, we’re still going to be all right,” Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said on CBS Mornings.

But those who survived faced highs in the 50s and a low below freezing Monday without any utilities.

“Our infrastructure is so damaged. We have no running water. Our water tower was lost. Our wastewater management was lost, and there’s no natural gas to the city. So we have nothing to rely on there,” she told CBS. “So that is purely survival at this point for so many of our people.”

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 said Sunday morning that the state’s toll could exceed 100. But he later said it might be as low as 50.

Initially as many as 70 people were feared dead in the candle factory, but the company said Sunday that eight deaths were confirmed 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.”

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.

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 a coworker, Lannis Ward, who was about 10 feet (3 meters) 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.

Four twisters hit Kentucky in all, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 200 miles (322 kilometers), authorities said.

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