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People in Kentucky are picking up the pieces in small towns hit by tornadoes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, President Biden visits Kentucky to see the damage caused by the tornadoes that hit there. We've been reporting this week on the destruction, and we've been hearing stories of life and death and loss in Kentucky, as well as the other states ravaged by the storms. The biggest death toll is in Kentucky, though, where 74 people died. More than a hundred people are unaccounted for still. The survivors are now trying to figure out how to build a new future. NPR's Brian Mann joins us now from western Kentucky, where he's been talking to people. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: You spent the day yesterday with families and business owners who are trying to take stock - right? - figuring out what to do now. What did you hear?

MANN: You know, people are in shock at how fast their world was taken from them. A lot of people lost neighbors and family to this storm. Many more lost homes and livelihoods. I found Dennis Brasher standing outside a shattered building in Dawson Springs, Ky.

DENNIS BRASHER: Kind of a hometown hardware store, been here for many, many, many years.

MANN: Brasher didn't just lose his business; he says he really lost everything.

BRASHER: Our personal home is completely gone. We lost everything there. We've got rental houses, probably in the neighborhood of 30 or so. And if we have - if you can count them on one hand when this is over with, I'm going to be surprised. So my rebuilding is going to be ugly.

MANN: That's a lifetime of work right there.

BRASHER: I lost it in about 30 seconds. Worked all my life for it and lost it in just a matter of minutes.

MANN: I'm standing in the central square of Dawson Springs. You can hear generators going all around me. There is no electricity here yet. There's a FEMA trailer off to one side. There's a group of volunteers handing out water. But the other thing that you can see standing here is that Dawson Springs is a community where the economy was already challenged before this storm hit. There are empty storefronts. So one of the questions going forward is, how does a place this small, where times were already tough, how does it move forward from this?

MELISSA GOODACRE: Fifty years ago, we had stores all over the place. It's - slowly after the factory left us, people kind of moved away, and businesses went away. But now it's just total devastation.

MANN: That's Melissa Goodacre, who was working in one of the few businesses I found open downtown, an insurance company that's busy right now taking claims and talking to customers. While she's grateful for being able to help her community, Goodacre told me she's frightened for the future of this town of 2,500 people, uncertain what will remain.

GOODACRE: I don't know how we'll come back. But maybe we will.

MANN: I'm very, very, very sorry for your loss.

GOODACRE: We will get through. We're strong. We will get through. I don't know how many will stay. But we will - part of us. Part of the people here will stay and rebuild. Part of them may move on. Can't says I blame them.

MANN: I hear this over and over - fear and doubt and then a kind of weary resolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

MANN: And people are hard at work. Bulldozers and work crews are everywhere. But one problem is that so many of the families who lost homes, they're elderly and low income.

JEFF STORY: And it's all gone. Everything they worked for. My dad's 77. My mom's 75.

MANN: I found Jeff Story working with friends and family, just starting to clean up the ruins of his parent's farm outside Dawson Springs.

STORY: I don't really know how to describe it. Just keep going at it. And it's kind of overwhelming, you know? I mean, you don't know where to start. There's so much destruction.

MANN: So this is a scary moment for people. A lot of them told me they don't have insurance. This is also a time when it's hard to get a lot of construction materials. That supply chain problem everyone talks about, it's going to make it a lot more expensive for many people to rebuild. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear talked yesterday about the challenge of keeping people's spirits up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: We're going to need a lot from people over the coming weeks and months. Remember; for us in Kentucky, we're going to be working to rebuild long after, you know, the rest of the country has moved in a different direction. So let's stay strong.

MANN: Now, it is important, Rachel, to say there has been progress. Tens of thousands of people have seen their power, their electricity restored. But in places like Dawson Springs and Mayfield, folks are really starting from scratch.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, Brian, meanwhile, there are still more than a hundred people missing, right? What do we know about the search effort?

MANN: Yeah, it's going full steam. Volunteers and National Guard, they're out there. I saw crews in neighborhoods through the day yesterday. And this weighs on people, you know? They're trying to rebuild, but they're also worried about their missing neighbors. One bit of good news is that there have been no more bodies found in the wreckage of that candle factory in Mayfield. You'll remember at first there was fear that a lot more workers might be in there under the wreckage. It does appear now the overwhelming majority made it out, though a half-dozen people are still missing. And officials say they hope after all the confusion settles, some of those unaccounted for will turn up.

MARTIN: Is COVID, I wonder, the pandemic, at all affecting search and rescue?

MANN: You know, it's interesting. People just aren't talking about COVID here right now. They're focused on getting through this hard moment. But hospitals are strained by people injured in the storm and by high numbers of COVID cases. I see very few people wearing masks. Kentucky only has a vaccination rate of 54%. So with all the confusion after this storm, people mixing and mingling and living in shelters, I'm afraid the pandemic could really add to the hardship, especially as omicron continues to spread.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, President Biden is expected to visit Kentucky later today. What are people there saying about the federal response?

MANN: Kentucky officials say they're getting all the help they've asked for from Washington. Senator Mitch McConnell praised the Biden administration this week for cutting red tape and working quickly to get a major disaster declaration signed. So today, the president's expected to make three stops here - at the Army post in Fort Campbell for a briefing on the recovery effort, and then he'll visit Mayfield and then come to Dawson Springs. And he's going to really see catastrophic damage firsthand and also hear from families and some of those rescue crews.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann. He has been talking with survivors of the tornadoes that hit in western Kentucky especially hard. Brian, thanks for your reporting. Thanks for bringing us these voices.

MANN: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "DOGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.