United States

U.S. tornadoes: President Joe Biden declares major disaster in Kentucky

Published : December 13, 2021 14:07 IST

Six people died when tornadoes crashed into this Amazon plant in Illinois. Photo: Bill Greenblatt/UPI Photo/imago images

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said about 50 had died in his state alone.

Authorities on December 12 spoke of the vast devastation across multiple states in the wake of a burst of deadly tornadoes this weekend that ravaged communities and leveled towns, with United States President Joe Biden declaring a major disaster in the hard-hit state of Kentucky. The declaration freed up unlimited federal aid for at least eight towns in Kentucky.

Rescuers picked through the splintered ruins on December 12 after several tornadoes wrought devastation on several southern states and the lower Midwest on December 10. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear reduced the death toll in his state to about 50 on December 12, bringing the overall death toll across several states to at least 64. He asked the U.S. government to declare a major federal disaster in the state late on December 12, which freed up more recovery funds.

Hope for candle factory workers

Most of the confirmed deaths in Kentucky were of workers at a candle factory, but original fears of more than 110 people dead at the site were dismissed on December 12 by a company spokesman. Eight factory employees did die, but there is hope that another eight still missing could still be alive, Bob Ferguson of Mayfield Consumer Products said late on December 12. "There were some early reports that as many as 70 could be dead in the factory. One is too many, but [...] the number is turning out to be far, far fewer," Ferguson said.

Later on December 12, 90 of those workers presumed dead were located alive and well. "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," Ferguson added. "With the power out and no landline, they were hard to reach initially." Authorities on December 11 reported rescuing 40 of the workers who were in the building at the time, but by December 12, hope of finding anyone else alive had all but evaporated. The Kentucky governor said the news about the discovery of the missing candle workers would be "pretty wonderful" if confirmed.

Federal aid brings Kentucky relief

White House approval of Beshear's plea to have the tragedy brought up to the level of a federal disaster means that funds will not be limited to the $5 million meted out under emergency declaration assistance. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website, a major disaster declaration "provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure." It includes "funds for both emergency and permanent work," the FEMA website says, ensuring Kentucky residents could look forward to rebuilding their homes after the disaster.

Towns like Mayfield bore the brunt of the destruction, with its 10,000-strong population running for cover after getting alerts on their phones 20 minutes before the tornado struck. "I've got towns that are gone," Beshear told CNN on December 12. He added, "My dad's home town isn't standing. It is hard to describe."

"You think you can go door to door to check on people and see if they're OK — there are no doors," Beshear said. He described how the level of destruction was much higher than in previous tornadoes, flattening even brick and steel structures. "It didn't take a roof, which is what we've seen in the past. It exploded the whole house. People, animals ... just gone," he added.

Many towns appeared leveled, with television showing drone footage virtually indistinguishable from a war zone — where the munitions are mother nature. "We're going to have over a thousand homes that are gone, just gone," the Kentucky governor said. Tens of thousands of people in the state lost power during the storms.

Search continues for more victims

Journalist Travis Ragsdale told DW on December 12 "there is town after town that is just rubble" for about 300 kilometers (186 miles). "There are six printed pages full of names of people that rescuers are still searching for, even a day-and-a-half after these storms struck," Ragsdale said. "When people woke up and walked out to see what was left of their town, it was just shell shock," he added about scenes at Mayfield.

Among the victims was a 3-year-old boy who died when his home collapsed on top of him at what officials called "ground zero" in the town of Mayfield. The director of FEMA, Deanne Criswall, said "there is still hope" of finding survivors in the vast wreckage. The agency was opening shelters and sending personnel armed with 30,000 meals and 45,000 liters (12,000 gallons) of water to the worst-hit areas.

On December 12, Pope Francis extended prayers "for the victims of the tornado that hit Kentucky."

Other states devastated by tornadoes

Experts believe about 30 twisters tore through five states. In Edwardsville, Illinois, six workers died when both sides of an Amazon warehouse collapsed inward and the roof caved in, according to the town's fire chief James Whiteford. Authorities managed to pull out 45 people working the overnight shift processing orders ahead of Christmas, but one person had to be airlifted to the hospital. A workers' union blasted Amazon for "dangerous labor practices."

"Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable," Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said in a statement. Four people were killed in Tennessee and two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed. Two people were also killed in Missouri.

ar,jc/fb,wd (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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