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Crews begin ‘Herculean’ task of removing tornado debris in Kentucky

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Ashley McKnight removes belonging from her damaged home in Dawson Springs, Kentucky./AFP
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Dec 15, 2021 - 06:41 AM

DAWSON SPRINGS — Work crews were hauling away tons of debris on Tuesday in western Kentucky towns pulverized by deadly tornadoes as traumatized residents turned to rebuilding their shattered lives.

“Total devastation,” said Ashley McKnight, a 41-year-old schoolteacher, pointing to the remains of her neighbors’ homes in Dawson Springs.

State Governor Andy Beshear said the death toll from the powerful twisters which struck late Friday remained at 74 but he expected more victims to be found in the rubble.

In total, at least 88 people died, with fatalities also recorded in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.

“Damage assessments are ongoing and major work continues to remove debris from roadways,” Beshear told a press conference. “But I tell you what, it’s 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.

“There’s something therapeutic about taking that chaos and destruction and death and getting it out of some of those areas,” he said.

Michael Dossett, the director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said debris removal is a “Herculean task” and the extent of the damage in some areas “will take your breath away.”

“Pictures and video do not do it justice,” Dossett said. “It is simply indescribable in some places.”

Beshear put out a call for blood donations and said state parks have opened to provide rooms for people who have lost their homes.

McKnight was wearing a headlamp as she pulled some salvageable valuables and other items from her damaged home in Dawson Springs, a town of about 2,500 residents.

“We are the tightest community you ever saw,” she told AFP as she placed a plastic doll house on the flatbed of her pickup truck.

McKnight lost her teenage son last month in a traffic accident one day before Thanksgiving.

“The same people who helped me so much three weeks ago as I mourned now have homes that are demolished,” she said, her voice cracking.

‘Total loss’ 

Just up the street, Jennifer Pleasant, 48, survived the tornado with her husband and six children in their small home, running into the central hall for safety as the storm shook the house.

“We’re hoping to repair,” Pleasant said, but houses around her were a “total loss.”

As rescue and repair crews fanned out through the town, National Guard troops set up a checkpoint on the edge of Dawson Springs regulating who is coming in and out.

Governor Beshear said more than 500 National Guard troops have been deployed to help with law enforcement, traffic control and recovery efforts.

He also confirmed that eight people died in the collapse of a candle factory that was flattened by the storm in Mayfield, another western Kentucky town.

Some 110 employees were working late Friday at the Mayfield Consumer Products plant to meet the Christmas holiday rush and there had been fears the death toll could be considerably higher.

“If you saw it in person, that’s a miracle,” Beshear said. “The level of absolute destruction in one place, it’s hard to describe.”

Six people were killed at an Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, where workers were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.

President Joe Biden is to visit Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the damage.

Biden has declared a major disaster in Kentucky, allowing additional federal aid to be channeled into recovery efforts.

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