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'So much destruction': Over 100 still unaccounted for in Kentucky after deadly tornadoes

NBC News logo NBC News 12/14/2021 Elisha Fieldstadt and Tim Fitzsimons
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Flags in Kentucky were lowered to half-staff at sunrise Tuesday to honor the dozens of people who were killed when tornadoes ripped through several states, picking up homes and leveling entire towns.

More than 100 people were unaccounted for in Kentucky, and 74 were confirmed dead, Gov. Andy Beshear said in an afternoon update before he surveyed storm damage in Muhlenberg County, where he himself lost relatives.

Twelve of the people who were killed were children.

"The age range has gotten even harder," Beshear said, "some not even getting an opportunity to experience this life."

The youngest victim was 2 months old and the oldest was 98, Beshear said.

He said eight of the dead in the county remain unidentified, adding, “I still expect that we will find more bodies — there is just so much destruction."

Beshear recalled spending time as a boy at his grandfather's home in Dawson Springs, where 17 people died.

"It’s not big enough to have 17 people dead," he said.

Part of a growing state fund will be used to pay for funerals. Donations have reached almost $10 million.

At least eight of those who died in Kentucky were killed when the roof of a candle factory in Mayfield collapsed. Beshear said the death toll at the factory, while devastating, was "a miracle."

“If you saw it in person," he said, "the level of absolute destruction in one place is hard to describe."

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Five candle factory workers said Monday that supervisors warned employees that they would be fired if they left their shifts early to seek shelter from the coming storm. Company officials denied the allegations.

The candle factory was just one of many structures that were lost in Mayfield — nearly the entire town was flattened.

Search and rescue operations continued Tuesday, as did the clearing of massive amounts of debris, including dead livestock.

"I'm going to tell you what feels pretty good, to not just be pushing this stuff out of the way but to be loading it up and taking it out of town," Beshear said, adding that the process was "therapeutic."

State parks were open to house those who have lost their homes.

The state's emergency management director, Michael Dossett, said that thousands of homes were gone and that even more were damaged enough to make them unlivable.

“Pictures and video do not do it justice. Being on the ground will take your breath away,” said Dossett, who had been set to retire but has vowed to put off his retirement as the state recovers.

The governor’s wife, Britainy Beshear, started a toy drive as families who have lost everything prepare to celebrate Christmas.

If the generosity of neighbors is any indication, "those parents are going to have a hard time next year after kids see what's coming in this year," Beshear said.

President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Sunday, providing federal aid in at least eight counties. Beshear said the declaration was the fastest he had ever seen.

Biden plans to travel to the state Wednesday for a storm briefing and to survey damage in Mayfield and Dawson Springs, half of which was leveled.

While Kentucky was the hardest-hit state, the devastation tore beyond its borders. Several people were killed in Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas.

Meteorologists have said climate change most likely made the tornadoes worse by altering or amplifying the ingredients that produced the outbreak, such as higher-than-average December temperatures.

At least six people were confirmed dead after part of an Amazon warehouse collapsed in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Amazon said in a statement Tuesday that it had donated $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation and that it is providing relief supplies to the community.

“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville," Amazon said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the collapse, the agency said. Amazon representatives said Monday that the inquiry is welcome, adding that the structure was built according to code.

Amazon thanked its team at the Illinois last-mile delivery station Tuesday, saying it tried to get as many employees as possible to the designated shelter location.

Biden also declared an emergency in Tennessee and a disaster in Illinois.

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