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The federal government responds after deadly weekend tornadoes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How do you move forward after a storm wipes out your home and nearly all your possessions? Thousands of families in the Mississippi River Valley are trying to answer that question for themselves. Tornadoes tore through Kentucky and five other states on Friday night. Dozens of people have been killed by the storm in Kentucky alone. In many small towns, the tornadoes destroyed whole neighborhoods and flattened business districts. President Biden has now declared a major federal disaster.

NPR's Brian Mann has been in Dawson Springs, in western Kentucky, where rescue and recovery teams are sorting through the destruction. Brian, thanks for being here.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: It's a hard question to put this into words, but can you give us a sense of the devastation?

MANN: You know, it's funny, Rachel - people here have been struggling to find words for this. It's just massive, especially here in Kentucky. These tornadoes touched down and just kept plowing their way across the state. A lot of people, as you mentioned, lost their lives. Families saw their homes swept away. And the scale is so big, we just don't know all the details.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear gave a briefing late yesterday, and he emphasized, officials are still scrambling three days later to get a clear picture of how bad the situation is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: We're going to have over a thousand homes that are just gone - gone. And that assessment is going to take some time. But we - I don't think we'll have seen damage at this scale ever.

MANN: And again, it's just not clear yet how many people died in this storm.

MARTIN: Brian, I want to ask about Mayfield, Ky. This is the town where this candle factory is - was, really. And there were...

MANN: Right.

MARTIN: ...People who were working there the night of the storm.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mayfield. He talked about this yesterday. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: And our teams visited the candle factory site - the decimated site - earlier today. We've lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters.

MARTIN: But Brian, why did that happen? I mean, why were people still working there despite the warnings?

MANN: Yeah, this is a big question. And we don't know yet. A company spokesman is saying there are eight people confirmed dead at the factory - as many as eight people still missing there. It does appear factory crews were working flat-out to produce candles for the holiday season. This is also a factory, we've learned, that had numerous alleged safety violations in the past. But why workers were still there on site and why the factory's tornado shelter didn't protect many of them, officials aren't saying yet. What we do know from yesterday's briefing is that no one has been rescued alive there at that site since Saturday afternoon, though teams are still scouring the wreckage.

MARTIN: You've been walking around Dawson Springs. This is one of the small towns hit so hard. What did you see?

MANN: You know, big parts of the community, Rachel, just scoured away, buildings pulverized - and I found people shaken and terrified. I walked yesterday through one neighborhood where families were digging through the rubble of their homes.

And I met Becky Jackson, who's 50 years old. She was in her mobile home Friday night when the tornado hit.

BECKY JACKSON: It just threw me backward. And luckily, I didn't - I come out without a scratch. I'm just sore.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAWS)

MANN: And it really did seem kind of miraculous to be standing there with her. Her front yard was choked with debris - some of it blown from miles away. Her trailer was a twist of razor-sharp metal.

JACKSON: It's completely destroyed. I have nothing. My trailer's gone. My vehicle's gone. We have nothing.

MANN: Right next door, Jennifer Burden was sifting through the wreckage of her daughter's home, not really able to find anything worth salvaging.

JENNIFER BURDEN: I mean, the first thing I did when I saw the house was I started crying.

MANN: Burden's daughter and her grandkids rode out the storm in the underground cellar here, with the house unraveling and peeling away above them. Burden says her 2-year-old grandson Brady is struggling with what happened. He's too young to even grasp what a tornado is.

BURDEN: He keeps saying, Meemaw (ph), the potato took all my toys. The potato took Sissy's little Christmas tree. But I wonder what kind of mental - emotional trauma they're going to have after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS RUMBLING)

MANN: They lost everything - home, cars, all their possessions. But Burden says she knows they're the lucky ones.

Down the hill from that neighborhood, Dennis Mayfield was sitting in his pickup truck taking a break. And he just looked exhausted. Mayfield is the coroner in this part of Kentucky.

DENNIS MAYFIELD: We have made - identified and confirmed 12 deceased, just here in the Dawson Springs area. I'm afraid the numbers will grow, but I don't know exactly how many.

MANN: This is a very small, rural community. Are any of the people who lost their lives folks that you knew?

MAYFIELD: About three or four that I knew personally - yes.

MANN: I'm very, very sorry.

MAYFIELD: I'm on my way to notify a family now.

MANN: These hard conversations are happening all over this town and really all over Kentucky - people hearing terrible news or people still in the dark and wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

I stopped in at the First Baptist Church, where the pastor, Trent Keaton, had just wrapped up a prayer vigil.

TRENT KEATON: We were actually just counting, and we come up with at least 14 members that completely lost everything. In the midst of that conversation, somebody was asking, well, what about this person, that person? We've not been able to contact. So I know for a fact that we lost one church member.

MANN: After leaving the church, I'm driving through Dawson Springs. And it is just an extraordinary amount of devastation - houses just wrecked, giant buildings reduced to rubble, twisted aluminum everywhere, trees down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BESHEAR: I'm emotional after two days.

MANN: That's Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear again. It turns out his family comes from Dawson Springs.

BESHEAR: This is a place that - I mean, Dawson's a place where I'd go and I'd sit on my grandparents' front porch. And that same porch - I went - and I went to check on their house. And their house is still there. But, I mean, one block up and left or right is just gone - just flattened.

MANN: And Rachel, that devastation that Governor Beshear is talking about - it goes on for miles. You can stand on a hillside in Dawson Springs and see the tornado's scar just running off into the distance.

MARTIN: Brian, are people getting the immediate help they need? I mean - electricity, shelter, water, food.

MANN: There are a lot of utility crews and linemen in the field - a small army of volunteers. But, you know, Dawson Springs is just one town of many affected by this storm - still, thousands of homes across Kentucky without power - gas lines severely damaged, which means no heat for a lot of people. And it does get cold here at night. So a lot of people are really struggling to get back to normal three days after this storm.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann is in Kentucky - part of our team covering the aftermath of Friday's deadly tornadoes. Brian, thanks for your reporting.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.