Where recovery efforts stand 1 week after tornadoes devastate South, Midwest

At least 78 people have died in Kentucky, the governor said Saturday.

December 18, 2021, 3:09 PM

Recovery and cleanup continue a week after dozens of tornadoes tore through nine states in the South and Midwest, leaving heartbreaking destruction in their wake.

At least 93 people were killed across five states after a severe, late-season outbreak of tornadoes touched down Friday evening through Saturday morning last week, leveling entire blocks and devastating communities during the holidays.

In hard-hit Kentucky, at least 78 people were killed, Gov. Andy Beshear said Saturday, updating the death toll by one from the day before. The tally could be 75, he noted, as officials work to confirm three deaths, though for now he believes it stands at 78.

The victims range in ages from 2 months to 98 years, with seven people from one family in Bowling Green among those killed.

In one bit of "good news," all missing people are now accounted for, Beshear said Saturday.

"Our hope is that means we won't see many, maybe any more deaths," he said during a press briefing. "But remember, there are still a number of people in the hospital. I don't have a report on how significant injuries are, so it could grow."

At least one person lost their life in the cleanup, he added.

PHOTO: An aerial view of a fallen tree in a graveyard after a devastating outbreak of tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
An aerial view of a fallen tree in a graveyard after a devastating outbreak of tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
Cheney Orr/Reuters

It was the most destructive storm in most Kentuckians' lifetimes, after a massive EF-4 tornado tore through western Kentucky with winds up to 190 mph, traveling for over 163 miles.

Over 1,000 homes were destroyed, according to Beshear, with the tight-knit communities of Mayfield and Dawson Springs among the hardest hit. But the state is resilient, he stressed.

"We're gonna dig out. We're still digging out," he said. "We're gonna clean up, and that's started in some places. And we're going to rebuild both structures and lives."

Some 944 displaced Kentuckians are being housed at state parks and hotels, with shelters at Kentucky Dam Village and Pennyrile state parks full, Beshear said Saturday. Countless others are staying with family and friends as well, he noted.

Hundreds of homes remain without power as of Saturday, and some communities are on a boil water advisory, Beshear said.

The recovery effort has been hampered by rain that has hammered the state in recent days.

"The rain that's hit western Kentucky in the last day-and-a-half is just mean," Beshear said. "It's really hard to understand how they could get hit with a tornado the likes of which we have never seen, and then it dumps rain on them as they're trying to dig out."

"We are in pain and we are knocked down, but we're not broken," he added.

PHOTO: A truck is seen amongst debris which was swept into a forested area behind homes, following a devastating outbreak of tornadoes that ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
A truck is seen amongst debris which was swept into a forested area behind homes, following a devastating outbreak of tornadoes that ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
Cheney Orr/Reuters

Some 1,300 Kentucky state workers and National Guard members have been mobilized to areas hit by the storms, and over 700 Federal Emergency Management Agency workers were on the ground this week aiding cleanup efforts in the state. FEMA has provided Kentucky with some 74,000 meals, 18,500 blankets and 1,500 tarps, White House officials said.

Amond the relief efforts, the state's Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund has raised nearly $20 million, Beshear said Saturday. The fund is helping provide families with funeral expenses up to $10,000.

"They shouldn't have to have a cheap funeral for their loved one," Beshear said. "That's not right."

The fund will also provide support to uninsured homeowners who "lost everything," the governor said.

"As time moves forward, we want to help others too. But this is a specific need of people to get back on their feet," he said.

The Biden administration on Wednesday boosted federal disaster funds from 75% to 100% coverage of the recovery for a 30-day period.

"I intend to do whatever it takes, as long as it takes to support your state and local leaders, and as you recover and rebuild because you will recover and you will rebuild," President Joe Biden said while surveying the damage in the state Wednesday. "The scope and scale of this destruction is almost beyond belief. When you look around here, it's almost beyond belief. These tornadoes devoured everything in their path."

As families and communities mourn and rebuild, questions also remain while investigations are underway into multiple tornado deaths at two workplaces last weekend.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation after eight workers were killed when a tornado struck the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky.

Workers at the candle factory, which was completely destroyed, have also filed a class-action lawsuit against their employer this week, alleging they were threatened with termination if they left due to the expected tornado.

PHOTO: Dried wax is seen amongst the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory where eight people died after a devastating outbreak of tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
Dried wax is seen amongst the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory where eight people died after a devastating outbreak of tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 17, 2021.
Cheney Orr/Reuters

The factory has denied that workers were threatened. Mayfield Consumer Products CEO Troy Propes told ABC News the company is conducting an independent review to see if methods and procedures were properly followed.

OSHA is also investigating after six workers at an Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville, Illinois, died when a tornado struck the facility, causing it to partially collapse.

Both OSHA investigations are expected to take up to six months to complete, agency spokespeople said.

ABC News' Ahmad Hemingway contributed to this report.

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