About 75% of one town, Dawson Springs in western Kentucky, was wiped out by the tornado, said Mayor Chris Smiley. About a third of the town’s population of 2,500 lives below the poverty line and many don’t have insurance.
Those whose homes are still standing probably won’t have power for up to a month, said Nick Bailey, director of emergency management in the county.
“Right now, our spirits are crushed, but we’ll come back,” said Hopkins County Coroner Dennis Mayfield, who reported on Sunday a death toll of 13 alone in Dawson Springs.
Overall, at least 88 people were killed in the violent storms that rolled through the parts of the Midwest and South late Friday into Saturday, including at least 74 in Kentucky, according to Gov. Andy Beshear. In total, at least 50 tornadoes were reported across eight states.
“When this tornado hit, it didn’t just take a roof off, which is what we’ve seen in the past,” Beshear said. “It exploded the whole house. People, animals, the rest — just gone.”
The damage wasn’t just to buildings. Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that several large transmission towers were destroyed and it will take weeks to months to replace them.
The destruction was indiscriminate. The long-term impact is hard to measure.
“For some folks, I don’t know that they’ll every recover from this completely, certainly not emotionally or psychologically,” said Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield. “Homes and buildings can be rebuilt in time, but this is the kind of thing that lasts with the community and with the family for a long time,” he told CNN on Monday.
‘We were flown through the air’
“I’m not OK,” said Breeana Glisson, a Dawson Springs mother who clutched her two young children as their home was ripped apart by the roaring wind. “Like, one minute I’m sitting here and I’m smiling and one minute I’m bawling my eyes out,” Glisson told CNN.
Glisson’s arm was broken, her head injured and face bruised. Her house was destroyed. But she is alive, and her children were miraculously unhurt.
“It’s insane. I can’t believe that me and my kids are OK,” Glisson told CNN’s Ed Lavandera, standing amid the concrete and wood rubble of her completely devastated neighborhood. “I can’t believe that there’s no broken bones on my children. It’s crazy.”
Glisson said she and her children are “extremely lucky to be alive because we were flown through the air. And … our neighbors passed away right next to us.”
Those neighbors were sisters Marsha Hall, 72, and Carole Grisham, 80. They took cover in a hallway during the tornado, but were found dead nearly 12 hours later among the rubble several houses away.
“Everybody thought the world of them,” said Jason Cummins, Hall’s son, with tears in his eyes. “They were the sweetest, nicest people who were always thinking about everyone else before themselves.”
“My children loved them,” said Glisson said of the sisters. “We talked to them every day.”
For now, Glisson, her children and her mother are living in a hotel room with a few donated items of clothing, blankets and food. But they don’t know where they are going next.
The Red Cross has opened shelters for those who lost their homes and several Kentucky state parks were opened to help house families.
But more help is needed, said Westerfield.
“We still need blood donations and still could use donations” to the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, Westerfield said. “I’d encourage you, (if) you have spare room this Christmas, give to western Kentucky.”
‘I laid on my family to hopefully protect them’
In Mayfield, about 72 miles southwest from Dawson Springs, Rev. Wes Fowler of the First Baptist Church said he and his family went to the church when they heard the weather was getting bad because they thought it was the safest place to be.
The family took shelter in a tunnel that connects two of the church’s buildings.
“Ceiling tiles started shaking and shifting and dust started filling the room, and debris started filling. And we got against the wall,” Fowler told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I laid on my family to hopefully protect them.”
Fowler said he and his wife tried to comfort their children during the worst of it, but “it was a very difficult moment.”
“We were telling our kids everything was going to be OK, everything was going to be fine. In our minds we’re thinking we’re not sure that we’re going to make it out of this,” he said.
The ordeal lasted only about a minute, but it felt much longer, Fowler said. When it was over he went outside with a flashlight but didn’t recognize the scene before him.
“I was confused. Born and raised here, I know this town well, but it wasn’t the same, like the landscape wasn’t the same,” he said.
Fowler said his church building is damaged, but can likely be saved. For now the cross above the entrance still stands, even though the glass that surrounded it has shattered.
About 130 miles to the east, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, officials said they have investigated 136 missing persons reports following the tornadoes and as of Monday, 13 people were still missing, according to Police Chief Michael Delaney. The death toll in Warren County, where Bowling Green is located, is 15, according to the coroner’s office.
Frank Winthrow Jr. and his wife, Vickie Boards-Winthrow are among those who lost their home in Bowling Green.
Winthrow said as the storm was getting bad, he looked up and saw the roof of his home was starting to come off.
“It was like hearing a train, closing in fast… and before you know it, the door, the wall, come caving in.”
Boards-Winthrow said she took shelter in the bathtub with nothing more than a pillow and her phone. “Everything just started crashing in. I felt the vibrations. It was scary, really scary. Everything just started falling in on me,” she said.
Standing in what remains of their home the couple said they’ve lost a lot but are grateful to still be alive.
“Everytime I look in here and then look outside, I think about the others that didn’t make it,” Boards-Winthrow said, adding that she’s asked herself why they survived and others didn’t. “I guess I have a purpose … it’s just heartbreaking.”
8 killed at candle factory, officials say
The factory had been “going 24/7” in part to meet Christmastime candle demand, US Rep. James Comer, who represents the area, told CNN.
During the storms, a tornado leveled the building, trapping many employees under several feet of debris, but authorities are now confident no one remains in the rubble.
Those six victims ranged from 26 to 62 years old, the Edwardsville Police Department said.
Forty-five people made it out of the building, with one person airlifted to a regional hospital for treatment, Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said during a Saturday evening news conference.
Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark said the company’s staff was saddened at the loss of life at the facility and beyond.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone who has been impacted by the storm’s path across the U.S. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area and across the communities affected by the storms. We also want to thank all of the first responders for their ongoing efforts on the scene,” Clark said in a tweet.
In Arkansas, the storm struck a Dollar General store in Leachville and killed assistant manager June Pennington, Mississippi County spokesman Tom Henry said.
In the nearby city of Monette, at least one person was killed at a nursing home damaged by a tornado, Mayor Bob Blankenship said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it was a “miracle” only one person died at the nursing home.
“As I went to that facility, it was like heaven sucked up the roof and all the contents of it,” he said.
“And it’s just a miracle with 67 residents that we only lost one there. And that’s because of the heroic efforts by the staff and also the fact that we had 20 minutes of warning.”
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Nick Valencia, Claudia Dominguez and Andy Rose contributed to this report.
In one Kentucky town, many tornado survivors are left with just the clothes on their backs