Kentucky tornado: Mayfield city completely destroyed

Officials describe ruined town as 'ground zero' following weekend of devastating twisters that shredded parts of the Midwest

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The hum of backhoes clawing through rubble fills the air on West Broadway Street in Mayfield, Kentucky, where emergency crews are working non-stop, searching for survivors and shoring up what building remnants they can.

This once vibrant city of 10,000 was levelled by a devastating tornado, one of several twisters to strike the US heartland over the weekend, killing scores of people, displacing thousands more and flattening towns across the Midwest.

In post-apocalyptic scenes, metal twisted like crumpled paper hangs from half-collapsed power lines, cars have been flipped onto their backs and trees broken in half by unimaginable winds.

US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster for Kentucky and said he would visit the state on Wednesday, stopping first at Fort Campbell for a briefing on response operations, and then to hard-hit Mayfield and another devastated city, Dawson Springs, to survey the damage.

At least 74 people died in Kentucky from the tornadoes, Governor Andy Beshear said on Monday, with 14 people confirmed killed in other states. Emergency workers continue searching for survivors, but federal and local officials are cautioning the death toll could rise further.

The major disaster declaration means allowing additional federal aid can be channelled into recovery efforts. Mr Biden had previously called the rare late-season burst of twisters that struck over the weekend "one of the largest" such outbreaks in US history.

Officials describe Mayfield as "ground zero". Entire city blocks were levelled, historic homes and buildings were beaten down to their slabs and cars had been hurled into fields.

The National's Willy Lowry reports from Kentucky after devastating tornado

The National's Willy Lowry reports from Kentucky after devastating tornado

Like a horror movie

At Red Eagle Crossfit, across the street from a gas station that no longer exists, Lance Gregory and his son, both strong and sturdy from years of training, were pulling heavy rubber mats from the debris.

“It’s just devastating, kind of surreal to see the destruction,” Mr Gregory told The National. “It looks like a movie scene or war zone.”

The Gregories were not home when the Tornado swept through town, their house was spared. They know they are the lucky ones.

“You feel terrible for the people who lost everything,” Mr Gregory said.

Four blocks away, Richard Berry stood in front of the antique store he had owned for three decades.

In front of him a mountain of bricks filled the once vibrant store.

"It's just stuff," Mr Berry said.

He picked up a photo of his smiling daughters from the rubble. He was hoping to find a picture of his great-great grandfather that hung by his desk.

"It's a Civil War photo," Mr Berry, 66, told The National.

At Mayfield Consumer Products, a candle factory where 110 people were working when the tornado ripped apart the building, more than 100 emergency rescue workers were searching through the rubble on Monday afternoon.

"Today is a very dangerous operation because we're moving steel, as we move steel, we certainly don't want people in harm's way," said Tom Neal, a FEMA task force leader.

He said work was focused on creating spaces large enough for cadaver dogs to sniff through.

Speaking to reporters in front of the rubble of the candle factory, Mayfield Mayor Kathy O'Nan struck a defiant tone.

"We are a tight community," she said, pledging to rebuild the city, no matter how long it took.

"It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s not going to happen this time next year. But I can swear to you that the city of Mayfield will survive this. That’s the type of people we are," Ms O'Nan said.

At least six people died in an Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, where they were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.

Emergency crews have worked non-stop at both locations, and agents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross volunteers were on the scene in Kentucky.

But Edwardsville fire chief James Whiteford told reporters the operation had turned from rescue to focusing "only on recovery", fuelling fears the toll will rise.

Four were killed in Tennessee and two died in Arkansas, while Missouri recorded two fatalities. Tornadoes also touched down in Mississippi.

Emergency crews were helping stunned citizens across the region clear the rubble.

David Norseworthy, a 69-year-old builder in Mayfield, said the storm blew off his roof and front porch while the family hid in a shelter.

"We never had anything like that here," he said.

Storm trackers said it had lofted debris 9,100 metres into the air, and the deadly Mayfield twister appeared to have broken an almost century-old record, cutting a path along the ground of more than 320 kilometres.

"The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life," Mr Beshear, the Kentucky governor, said.

As Americans grappled with the immensity of the disaster, condolences poured in, with Pope Francis saying he is praying "for the victims of the tornado that hit Kentucky."

The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

Mayfield, near the westernmost tip of Kentucky, was reduced to "matchsticks," its mayor Kathy O'Nan said.

Still, she told NBC on Sunday, "there's always hope" of finding survivors.

"We hope for a miracle," she said.

Troy Propes, chief executive of the company that owned the candle factory, defended his decision not to close it as the storm neared.

"We did everything that was supposed to happen," he told CNN on Sunday. "My heart bleeds for absolutely everyone."

Reports put the total number of tornadoes across the region at around 30.

"This is going to be our new normal. And the effects that we're seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation," FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN on Sunday.

Wires contributed to this report

Updated: December 15, 2021, 6:45 AM