Residents of counties in Kentucky where tornadoes killed several dozen people could be without heat, water or electricity in extremely cold temperatures for weeks or longer, state officials have warned, as the toll of damage and deaths came into clearer focus in five states hit by the swarm of twisters.
Kentucky authorities said the destruction wrought was hindering their ability to tally the devastation from Friday night’s storms.
At least 64 people were killed in the state alone, although officials believe the death toll will be lower than initially feared since it appeared many more people escaped a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, than first thought.
As searches continued for those still missing, efforts also turned to repairing the power grid, sheltering those whose homes were destroyed and delivering drinking water and other supplies.
“We’re not going to let any of our families go homeless,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear said, announcing that lodges in state parks were being used to provide shelter.
In Mayfield, one of the hardest hit towns, those who survived faced temperatures below freezing on Monday without any utilities.
“Our infrastructure is so damaged. We have no running water. Our water tower was lost. Our wastewater management was lost, and there’s no natural gas to the city. So we have nothing to rely on there,” Mayfield mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said on CBS Mornings.
“So that is purely survival at this point for so many of our people.”
Across the state, about 26,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us, including nearly all of those in Mayfield. More than 10,000 homes and businesses had no water, and another 17,000 were under boil-water advisories, Kentucky Emergency Management director Michael Dossett told reporters.
Mr Dossett warned that full recovery in the hardest-hit places could take not just months, but years.
“This will go on for years to come,” he said.
Kentucky was the worst hit in the cluster of twisters across several states, remarkable because they came at a time of year when cold weather normally limits tornadoes.
At least 64 people died there, Mr Beshear said on Monday, offering the state’s first specific death toll.
There were at least another 14 deaths in Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.
But Mr Beshear warned that it could take several more days to pin down the full death toll, with door-to-door searches impossible in some places.
“With this amount of damage and rubble, it may be a week or even more before we have a final count on the number of lost lives,” Mr Beshear said.
Initially as many as 70 people were feared dead in the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, but the company said on Sunday that eight deaths were confirmed and eight people remained missing, while more than 90 others had been located.
“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.
“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.”
Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky. Twisted sheet metal, downed power cables and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs torn off the buildings that were still standing.
Firefighters there had to rip the doors off their station to get vehicles out, according to Fire Chief Jeremy Creason on CBS Mornings.
“Words cannot describe the bravery, the selflessness that they’ve exhibited,” he said of his employees.
“We had to try and navigate through all the debris up and down our streets. We were responding with ambulances with three and four flat tyres.”
Four twisters hit Kentucky in total, including one with a path about 200 miles (322km) long, authorities said.
In addition to the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution centre in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers shielded residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.
Pope Francis expressed his sadness over the “devastating impact” of the tornadoes. In a telegram sent on Monday by Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope offered prayers for those who died, “comfort to those who mourn their loss and strength to all those affected by this immense tragedy”.