Beshear tours tornado damage in far western Ky. after deadly storm leaves thousands without power
Kentuckians are still picking up the pieces days after a deadly storm system swept across the state.
The fast-moving storm system left five people dead Friday and – at its height – nearly a half million Kentucky residents without power.
Gov. Andy Beshear, along with local government and state emergency management officials, toured some of the damage on Sunday in the small western Kentucky community of Freemont – just south of Paducah, in McCracken County – which he called “the hardest hit area of the state.”
“We've walked up and down the street here at Freemont. The miracle is that everybody in this town is not only alive, but they are unhurt. And when you see the pictures of what surrounds us, that shows you that God was truly in this town,” Beshear said. “Really incredible that everybody here and most families we've gotten to talk to are ultimately safe even though they have a lot of rebuilding to come.”
Preliminary data from the National Weather Service indicates Freemont was hit by an EF-2 tornado that stayed on the ground for a mile and a half, with peak winds reaching 125 mph at a maximum width of around 175 yards. Initial estimates for damage in the community proved low, with McCracken County Emergency Management director Rob Estes confirming Sunday that 68 homes had been damaged and four had been destroyed in the storm.
Though no one in the community of Freemont was hurt, Beshear said the storm did fatally injure five people: a 23-year-old man from Edmonson County, a 63-year-old man in Logan County, an 84-year-old man in Bath County, a 68-year-old man in Simpson County and a 41-year-old woman in Fayette County.
Just over 186,000 Kentuckians were still without power and over 8,000 families were under a boil water advisory on Sunday afternoon.
“This is going to be a multi-day effort to restore power,” Beshear said. “We don't think that the reason for most of those is actual damage caused by the storm to the [power and water] systems, which is a good thing overall, but more in its impact on the ability to get power where it is needed.”
Since the storms on Friday, Beshear said, 64 of Kentucky’s 120 counties – along with 19 cities – have declared a state of emergency. He also declared a state of emergency for Kentucky on the day of the storm. Beshear also activated the price gouging statute for the state “to make sure that no one's taken advantage of in one of these times.”
Kentucky Emergency Management director Jeremy Slinker also spoke Sunday in Freemont, calling the action taken by local officials an “extraordinary response”
“The immediate search, the primary and secondary search … that happened within minutes,” Slinker said. “And, you know, thank God that there was no injuries and no fatalities found.”
Slinker said the state will be “closely monitoring” damage assessments coming out of the storm and developing a recovery strategy, along with a request for federal assistance. Beshear said he ultimately believes the storm’s damages will qualify for a federal disaster declaration, though he and Slinker were unsure if the threshold would be met for individual assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer noted the helping hands being extended by several Freemont community members to their neighbors.
“We're a strong community here. We help each other,” Clymer said. “That's one of the things that's so great about this position … is being able to lead people that are so community-oriented and helping each other.”
The governor added that many survivors of the deadly Dec. 10, 2021, tornado outbreak in western Kentucky and the catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky were impacted by Friday’s storms. He urged all survivors to seek mental health services if they need them by calling the federal Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.
“There's a lot of trauma that comes with an EF-2 tornado coming through this town, or experiences that other people went through – not knowing if they’d survive [or], certainly, for those that have lost loved ones, or have those that are hurt,” the governor said. “Sometimes this trauma is just more than our minds, or bodies are meant to take.”
Beshear added that many of the McCracken community members are planning to stay right where they are.
“From what I've seen, no one feels alone. Well, that first day after might have been tough [but] they're seeing a lot of progress,” Beshear said. “They're moving forward and everybody I've talked to plans on building back.”
Later Sunday afternoon, community members and leaders met at the Hendron-Freemont Volunteer Fire Station.
One of those planning to rebuild is Donna Hamlin, a retiree and a Freemont resident for more than two decades. Hamlin and her husband took cover just before the disaster struck.
“We left the bedrooms, got into the hall, and it hit. Two minutes later, maybe less. [My husband] saw the front porch go,” Hamlin said. “Everybody says it’s supposed to sound like a train or something but it was just the loud wind and it just slowly got faster and faster and faster and louder and louder. I felt like I was going to go up like The Wizard of Oz or something.”
Officials are planning to use the station, which is located at 8145 Old Mayfield Road in Paducah, as a rallying point for nonprofit groups, community members and volunteers looking to help the area’s impacted residents. It’s expected to open at 8 a.m. and close at 4:30 p.m. each day until the cleanup is finished.
Anyone impacted by the storm in the Freemont area seeking more information about available services can visit the station during those hours or call 270-554-4714.