'1,000 homes are just gone:' Final Kentucky tornado death toll may take weeks

Communication outages slow efforts to track down missing survivors

MAYFIELD, Ky. -- At least 74 people are dead after a tornado tore through 200 miles of western Kentucky Friday night, and more than 100 people are still unaccounted for, according to the governor.

Statewide, at least 105 people have been reported missing, and it has been difficult to track people down with communications down across the damage path, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday. 

The governor estimates the final death toll will take more than a week to confirm. "To know if someone is missing, they need to be reported," Beshear said.

Missing people can be reported to Kentucky State Police. Family members should have as much information as they can to report a missing loved one, including photos if possible. DNA will be taken from the family to help potentially identify victims. 

Of the 74 victims, 18 have yet to be identified. The youngest victim was only 5 months old, and the eldest was 85. At least six of the victims were children.

HOW TO HELP: Donations, volunteers needed for tornado recovery efforts

An emotional Beshear said he was having trouble coping with the sheer scale of the devastation to Kentuckians. He said when he was taking notes about the victims, he realized he was writing on his child's homework.

"We lost some kids, and we have some kids who lost their home," the governor said.

The devastation comes just a few weeks before Christmas, and rescue efforts are taking place in the bitter cold.

More candle factory workers found safe

Eight people were killed at a Mayfield candle factory when the twister demolished most of the town, including the candle business. 

On Saturday, Beshear had said that only 40 of the 110 workers on the scene had been rescued; part of an estimated statewide death toll of "at least 70" with warnings the count could exceed 100.

But a spokesperson for the candle company says as of Sunday evening, while eight people were confirmed dead, and eight were still missing, more than 90 others had been located, according to The Associated Press.

"Many of the employees were gathered in the tornado shelter, and after the storm was over, they left the plant and went to their homes," Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company, said according to the AP. "With the power out and no landline, they were hard to reach initially. We’re hoping to find more of those eight unaccounted as we try their home residences."

Beshear says his office is still working to confirm the number of workers missing. "We very much hope that is true," Beshear said of the lower count of missing candle factory workers.

However, even if the death count was lower at the candle factory, it was still expected to reach the dozens statewide.

"Over 1,000 homes are just gone," Beshear said. "There is no lens big enough to show you the extent of the damage here in Graves County or in Kentucky. Nothing that was in the direct line of this tornado is still standing."

Widespread destruction will take years to rebuild

Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett estimated it would take months, if not years, to fully rebuild some parts along the tornado's path. 

"This is a massive event and the largest and most devastating in Kentucky’s history," Dossett said.

Search and rescue crews, including 300 National Guardsmen, went house-to-house in Mayfield, Dawson Springs, and other hard-hit towns searching the rubbles for any hope of survivors or finding those who had perished to bring closure to their families.

In all, 18 counties suffered tornado damage in Kentucky alone, Beshear said, and at least 12 others died during a tornado in Bowling Green. Tornadoes were reported in five other neighboring states, accounting for 14 additional deaths. 

"I believe ultimately this will be the longest tornado in U.S. history at over 220 miles," Beshear said. "200 of them in my state with my people who have suffered from it."

Warnings about the impending severe weather began a few days before the tornadoes. Beshear believes no warning could have been enough to prepare Kentuckians for the devastating tornado.

"How do you tell people there is going to be one of the most powerful tornadoes in history, and it’s going to come through your building?" he said.

Tens of thousands remain without power, and the state's national parks have been opened up as a refuge for those who have been displaced. Beshear says he's allowing stays of at least two weeks, and over 100 people are there already.

The governor thanked the support of the state and federal government officials for quickly providing aid and from those across the nation offering whatever Kentucky residents need.

"We are grateful for the outpouring of love from all over the country," Beshear said.

More than $4 million has been donated to the Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund. The governor said the first allocation would go toward the victim's families to pay for burial costs. Each victim's family will receive $5,000.

And while so many homes and businesses are gone, Beshear says Kentucky will bounce back.

"We are going to grieve together; we're going to dig out and clean up together, and we rebuild and move forward together… because that is what we do."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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