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Deadly tornado flattens Kentucky town

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Authorities in Kentucky and several other states in the central U.S. are surveying the damage and looking for survivors after a string of more than 30 tornadoes ripped across the region last night. Dozens of people are confirmed dead, and many more are feared to have been killed. Today, President Biden declared a state of emergency in the state of Kentucky and called the loss of life in all the states involved an unimaginable tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I want to emphasize what I told all the governors. The federal government will do everything, everything it can possibly do to help.

FLORIDO: Just one of the tornadoes that hit last night cut a 227-mile path across four states, with most of the destruction in Kentucky. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN is in the city of Mayfield, Ky., which sustained a direct hit and was devastated. Blake, thanks for joining us.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: You're welcome.

FLORIDO: How bad is it?

FARMER: You know, I mean, it's as bad as I've seen in my 15-yet years covering tornadoes every so often in the South, and this one long-track twister ripped right through the middle of several towns, including Mayfield. It's a city of about 10,000. The mayor's office and City Hall, they were walloped. The neighboring police headquarters and the fire station was heavily damaged. When I arrived this morning, they were changing flat tires on fire trucks because so many were hit. Even the courthouse has lost the top of the building. Then the historic homes that are right there near town, many of them were just leveled, and some people died inside of those homes. Some who I talked to just almost couldn't believe they escaped with their lives because it looked like a war zone.

FLORIDO: Wow. Well, we note the highest concentration of fatalities was at a factory that makes candles. Do we know how many people were inside?

FARMER: Well, we know how many were inside - about 100 or 110 - but not how many fatalities. They're combing the rubble, hoping to find survivors still. There - these folks were working overnight when the twister hit just before 10:00 p.m., but that may not have even been the only mass-casualty situation. As I was surveying damage near Mayfield and talking to survivors, a man named Vernon Evans (ph) led me to this nursing home by his apartment. He says while it was still storming after the winds died down a bit, he and several others were pulling survivors and, in some cases, bodies from this nursing home. He and I stood on this brick wall that had toppled over that was on top of a hospital bed and a wheelchair.

VERNON EVANS: We got three bodies from here. This is the rooms - where the rooms was. We broke this wall off. The lady was laying here in the water. It's all I can do.

FARMER: Evans says the woman drowned, and he's still quite shaken up. The sledgehammer, by the way, that they used to break that wall up, to get it off of these folks, was still laying right there. They had beaten it so hard that they had broken the wooden handle of the sledgehammer.

FLORIDO: Wow. That's quite an image. So it sounds, though, that, like, you know, it could take quite some time to confirm all of the fatalities because of how much damage there is. Did people have warning about these storms, that these storms might be coming?

FARMER: You know, everybody I talked to today has said they had plenty of warning. And in this region - I'm based in Nashville, usually - forecasters were talking across all these states for the last day or two about severe weather being possible Friday night. And this system was massive. It spawned potential tornadoes in half a dozen states, and this one that hit Kentucky streaked through Arkansas, Missouri, a corner of Tennessee and then 200 miles through Kentucky. So there are a number of communities in Kentucky that were just walloped, including the city of Bowling Green as well.

FLORIDO: What's the biggest concern for emergency responders right now, Blake?

FARMER: You know, they're still in rescue mode, but as the sun goes down, temperatures really drop throughout the day. And there are still huge swaths of states with no power, and they're concerned about people staying warm.

FLORIDO: That was reporter Blake Farmer of station WPLN reporting from Mayfield, Ky. Blake, thank you.

FARMER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Blake Farmer
Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.