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Biden declares major disaster in Kentucky as tornadoes kill dozens

Tornado damage is seen after extreme weather hit the region on Sunday, in Mayfield, Kentucky. — AFP
Tornado damage is seen after extreme weather hit the region on Sunday, in Mayfield, Kentucky. — AFP

MAYFIELD: US emergency workers searched on Sunday for survivors of ferocious tornadoes that killed dozens of people across several states and left towns in ruins, as the governor of hard-hit Kentucky warned that cadaver dogs were still finding bodies.

President Joe Biden called the rare late-season burst of twisters in the US heartland “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history, and on Sunday night declared a major federal disaster in Kentucky.

He had previously issued an emergency declaration for the hard-hit state, but upgraded it at the governor’s request to allow for additional aid.

Both federal and local officials have cautioned the death toll, for now at 94, could still rise.

While the heads of the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) went to Kentucky to assess the situation, stunned residents began sifting through the rubble of their homes and businesses.

“The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear told an afternoon news conference.

More than 80 people are dead in the state alone, many of them workers at a candle factory in the ravaged town of Mayfield, Beshear said on Sunday, telling CNN: “That number is going to exceed more than 100.”

Later in the day, the governor said the factory’s owner believed more of the workers had been located, and it would be “pretty wonderful” if the toll were to be revised down, but stressed he could not verify that information.

“Remember, we’re still finding bodies. We’ve got cadaver dogs in towns that they shouldn’t have to be in,” he said. At least six people died in an Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, where they were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.

Emergency crews worked through the night into Sunday at both locations, and FEMA agents and Red Cross volunteers were on the scene in Kentucky.

But Edwardsville fire chief James Whiteford told reporters the operation had turned from rescue to focus “only on recovery,” fuelling fears the toll will rise.

Four were killed in Tennessee and two died in Arkansas, while Missouri recorded two fatalities. Tornadoes also touched down in Mississippi.


Emergency crews were helping stunned citizens across the region clear the rubble.

David Norseworthy, a 69-year-old builder in Mayfield, said the storm blew off his roof and front porch while the family hid in a shelter.

“We never had anything like that here,” he said.

As a nondenominational church in Mayfield was handing out food and clothing to storm survivors, it was also providing space for the county coroner to do his work, pastor Stephen Boyken of His House Ministries said.

People “come with pictures, birthmarks — they talk now about using DNA samples to identify those who have been lost,” he said.

The storm system’s power placed it in historic company.

Storm trackers said it had lofted debris 30,000 feet in the air, and the deadly Mayfield twister appeared to have broken an almost century-old record, tracking on the ground well more than 320 kilometres.

“The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life,” Beshear said.

As Americans grappled with the immensity of the disaster, condolences poured in, with Pope Francis saying he is praying “for the victims of the tornado that hit Kentucky.” — AFP

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