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Biden promised government support after visiting areas hit by tornadoes in Kentucky

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour in Western Kentucky, where President Biden toured areas devastated by severe tornadoes last weekend. At least 74 people died in Kentucky alone. Dozens are still unaccounted for. And the president is promising the full support of the federal government.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every single cost the federal government's going to take care of. And it includes debris removal, cost of overtime in law enforcement, emergency service personnel and shelter.

KELLY: The president made those promises after surveying the damage in Dawson Springs. Earlier today, he visited Fort Campbell and Mayfield, which is where we find NPR's David Schaper. Hey, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what all did the president do while he was there in Western Kentucky? What did he see?

SCHAPER: Well, President Biden met with state and local officials and then walked a couple of blocks in downtown Mayfield, where many buildings were just blown or torn apart. Some are just nothing more than a wall or two and piles of crumpled bricks, splintered wood, twisted metal and shredded insulation. He stopped to chat with a woman who was sitting on a pile of debris. At one point, he paused to pray in the middle of the street with local leaders and others in his entourage. And he praised the staff and volunteers of faith-based groups that are here that are playing a big role in the relief efforts, telling them, you're doing God's work. "A lot of people are going through a god-awful mess right now," Biden said. But he vowed that the federal government is not leaving, adding, quote, "I promise you the federal government is going to be involved until this gets rebuilt."

KELLY: Did you see evidence of that? Can you see federal assistance already there on the ground?

SCHAPER: Yeah, I do. From the very beginning of this disaster, there were federal search and rescue teams here combing through the buildings that were reduced to rubble and digging through the debris fields that were, you know, scattered in more rural areas far and wide. Since then, I've also seen people in FEMA jackets going home to home or just stopping to talk to groups of people standing amid the devastation to provide them with information about how and where they could find some assistance.

Elected officials in both parties here have praised the federal response. But, you know, to those who have lost everything, this is still a difficult process to navigate. I talked to the top - I talked with 66-year-old Janet Kemp (ph) as she and her adult son tried to salvage what they could out of the rubble of their home and asked if she's getting any government help.

JANET KEMP: My sister has contacted FEMA for me, and she's going to do all that. They came down yesterday and helped what they could, too.

SCHAPER: The state, the county or - is there any assistance there? Or...

KEMP: Honey, I don't even know. I'm telling you, after all that's happened and everything, I'm - it's a wonder I know my own name.

SCHAPER: You just get a sense there, Mary Louise, of how gut-wrenching and overwhelming all of this loss is to people here.

KELLY: Yeah, you sure do. I mean, they're still so in the thick of it that I almost hesitate to ask, but, you know, rebuilding, recovery, what comes next - what's happening in that regard?

SCHAPER: You know, everybody I talked to says that they want to rebuild, but, you know, that may be - prove to be very difficult for folks because, you know, a lot of people I've talked to who were living in homes that were damaged or destroyed did not have renter's insurance or homeowner's insurance. And they just may not have the means to rebuild their own dwelling. And building material costs have skyrocketed. But, you know, for the city of Mayfield itself rebuilding, Janet Kemp doubts that this place will ever be the same.

KEMP: Mayfield - the old buildings that we had here my whole life, they will never be back. I'm hoping we will rebuild, but there's not going to be a whole lot of it left after we get everything cleaned up.

SCHAPER: Meanwhile, the cleanup is definitely ramping up. There are crews moving aggressively to haul away debris. Some people have told me they've been told by authorities that what's left of their homes will be demolished soon, so they need to recover what they can.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's David Schaper in Mayfield, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.