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'A very dire situation': Officials react in aftermath of deadly tornado system in west Kentucky

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

This story has been updated and edited for factual accuracy.

More than 70 people are dead in Kentucky after four tornadoes – including one tracked over 200 miles in total – ravaged the state.

The storm system’s path of destruction stretches across 19 counties – from the southwestern tip of Fulton County eastward to Breckinridge County. One of the communities hit the hardest was Mayfield in Graves County.

The county courthouse, though still standing, was heavily damaged and winds wrecked multiple public buildings, including fire and police departments and the city jail. Hundreds of homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed by the storm.

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Zacharie Lamb

Gov. Andy Beshear was on the ground Saturday morning surveying the fallout and gave a press conference at CFSB outside Mayfield’s downtown area.

“This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state’s history,” the governor said. “And for those that have seen it and what it’s done in Graves County and elsewhere: It is indescribable. The level of devastation is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

Beshear described the horrific scene on the ground in Graves County, noting bent and broken trees and power poles, industrial equipment tossed into the air and back down again, cars flipped over, roofs ripped off and the streets littered with broken glass and other debris.

Homes, businesses and families affected by Friday evening’s and Saturday morning’s storms number in the thousands. The situation being tracked the most closely by state officials is that of Mayfield Consumer Products, a local candle factory where 110 people were inside at the time the tornado hit.

Beshear projected that the loss of life at the factory may be the single biggest in a single location due to a tornado in the state’s history. A final death total is still forthcoming as search and rescue missions continue.

“We’re gonna lose a lot of lives in that facility. I pray there’ll be another rescue. I pray there’ll be another one or two,” he said. “It’s a very dire situation at this point.”

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

Graves County Judge-Executive Jesse Perry asked surrounding communities for prayer and help. He also mentioned many storm survivors would not have place to sleep tonight in Mayfield, where homes left standing are largely without power or water access on a night when temperatures are expected to dip below freezing.

“This is probably the toughest day of my life right here,” the county official said. “When you run for office you don’t know what to expect, but when you see your community and your town in this kind of situation, it’s tough. The only thing I can say to you all at this time what we need from everyone is we need your prayers and we need your help.”

Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan praised the resilience of her community and the kindness of Mayfield’s neighbors in her statements, adding that she had been in communication with dozens of area mayors.

“What’s happening today is exactly what we do best. We have been hit. Our commonwealth has been hit. People we love have lost loved ones,” she said. “Our hearts are broken because the people that we work with, the people that we know, our families, are hurting. Pray for us. Stand with us and we will come out stronger because of this.”

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On the response front, Beshear said a state declaration of emergency was declared late Friday and a release from the governor's office confirmed that Pres. Joe Biden approved a federal declaration of emergency late Saturday afternoon.

“We’ll be with you for weeks, months and years in this fight. Already you’ve seen neighbors helping neighbors. That’s what Kentucky does,” said Michael Dossett, Kentucky’s Emergency Management director.

Dossett said multiple FEMA and Kentucky Emergency Management teams are coming to help with search and rescue operations that are expected to take place in the coming days. Dossett said the state is requesting for immediate reimbursement for category A and B damages, which should cover debris removal and emergency protective procedures.

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

Mayfield chief of police Nathan Kent said his agency’s situation is fluid as he continues to navigate this disaster. His department lost several communications assets in the city and Kentucky State Police is aiding in their communications recovery. The Mayfield police station was also destroyed during the storm, along with much of the department’s vehicle fleet.

Kent added a curfew will be going into effect for Mayfield Saturday at 7 p.m. CST. This will be enforced within Mayfield city limits in the path of the tornado. Kent asked no member of the public go out into affected areas unless they are in danger.

The Kentucky National Guard have been deployed. Major General Hal Lamberton said guardsmen from all around Kentucky were on their way to western Kentucky to assist in search and rescue operations, work security details for compromised facilities and locations and help clear debris. During the morning press conference, Beshear said over 180 guardsmen were mobilized but that the call would be increasing.

More than 170 Kentucky Transportation Cabinet employees for District 1 were working to clear roads in Fulton, Hickman, Graves, Marshall and Lyon counties.

Mayfield fire chief and EMS director Jeremy Creason detailed some of the happenings in the early morning. His fire department responded to four different structure fires in the city over night despite the main station being in the direct line of the tornado. It has been rendered fully inoperable.

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Looking forward, Beshear pledged his full support to aiding in the recovery of the region and hopes other state and federal officials and agencies do the same.

“Kentucky is united today. I’m behind the people of western Kentucky,” Beshear said. “We want to be here to help dig out, to help make rescues, to provide when people are suffering, and then to help rebuild. This is not a one day thing.”

There are many ways to help victims of these western Kentucky storms and Beshear expects the Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund to be formed and ready to receive donations soon.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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