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In Kentucky towns slammed by tornadoes, weary residents are picking up the pieces

Beatrice and Luis Valero, and their 8-year-old granddaughter Alaya Pacheco, stand in front of what's left of their home. The family says they lost everything in last week's tornado and hope to rebuild,  but they had no homeowner's insurance.
David Schaper
/
NPR
Beatrice and Luis Valero, and their 8-year-old granddaughter Alaya Pacheco, stand in front of what's left of their home. The family says they lost everything in last week's tornado and hope to rebuild, but they had no homeowner's insurance.

In Kentucky, searchers continue to go house to house, combing through debris in hopes of finding the more than 100 people still unaccounted for after vicious tornadoes swept through the state on Friday night.

Families and business owners are also beginning to clean up neighborhoods, salvaging the parts of their lives that remain in the wake of a disaster that has left at least 74 people dead.

"Yes [we're] still in rescue and recovery," said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday. "But that doesn't mean we're not starting the process of clearing out cleaning up and then rebuilding."

In the city of Mayfield, people "lost everything"

In Mayfield, one of the hardest hit cities, bulldozers, back-hoes, loaders and bobcats have been hauling away what's left of destroyed homes and businesses.

The scope of the devastation is mind boggling to many who see it.

"We lost everything," said Beatriz Valero, 42. "It's very hard but were glad and we're thankful to God that we're alive."

All but the two back bedrooms of the home where she raised her six children are gone, along with almost everything inside of it.

The Valeros sort through what is left of their home. For now, they're staying with Beatrice's mother.
David Schaper / NPR
/
NPR
The Valeros sort through what is left of their home. For now, they're staying with Beatriz's mother.

When the tornado hit, Valero huddled in a hallway with her husband, Luis, and their 8-year-old granddaughter Alayah.

"Yesterday I couldn't sleep all night," she said. "I didn't sleep all night again because I get like, very nervous and I couldn't fall asleep. I start hurting and then I shake."

Valero's granddaughter Alayah added some heartbreaking news.

"The Christmas tree I think got sucked up with the presents," the girl said. She hopes some of the wrapped up gifts are buried in the debris, but they haven't found any of them yet.

Crews are still working to restore electricity to the homes and businesses still standing in Mayfield. They also have to create a new water supply after the town's water tower was knocked down.

But questions remain about Mayfield's long term recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Many of those who lost their homes and businesses may not be able to afford the cost of rebuilding. Even those that can may face long delays and higher costs due to the shortage of lumber and other building materials, as well as labor.

Howard Smith, 73, owned a shop in downtown Mayfield for his woodworking tools and other hobbies that was leveled by the storm.

As he and his wife, daughter and a few friends dug through the rubble to see what they could salvage, he teared up talking about the town he's lived in most of his life.

Howard Smith, left, combs through what's left of his workshop in Mayfield with family and friends.
David Schaper / NPR
/
NPR
Howard Smith, left, combs through what's left of his workshop in Mayfield with family and friends.

"It'll be starting new, it'll be starting fresh," Smith said, "... but it will take a long time. I don't think people my age will see it back like it was ... but I hope my grandkids will. But it will take a lot to get it done."

In Dawson Springs, questions about who will stay and who will go

In Dawson Springs, seventy miles from Mayfield, Melissa Goodacre has been working in an insurance shop downtown helping people file recovery claims.

Her office is cold, with electricity provided by one small generator.

She said this small town of about 2,500 people where she's lived her whole life was struggling before the tornadoes hit.

"Fifty years ago we had stores all over the place, but after the factory left us, people kind of moved away, and businesses went away," Goodacre said. "Now it's just total devastation."

Goodacre said people in Dawson Springs are strong and resilient, but she began to sob as she talked about the future of her community.

Homes in Dawson Springs are marked with red paint after they've been searched for survivors or victims. The effort of clearing away the rubble and rebuilding will take months, and many homeowners don't have insurance.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Homes in Dawson Springs are marked with red paint after they've been searched for survivors or victims. The effort of clearing away the rubble and rebuilding will take months, and many homeowners don't have insurance.

"I don't know how we'll come back, but maybe we will," she said. "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 say I blame them."

One fear here local residents have is that so many people will leave the town that it will endanger survival of Dawson Springs' small public school system, the community's largest employer.

Dennis Brasher, whose home, hardware store and rental properties in the town were all demolished by the storm, said "rebuilding is going to be ugly."

"I lost it in 30 seconds," Brasher said. "Worked all my life for it and lost it in a matter of minutes."

Dennis Brasher stands in front of his ruined hardware store in Dawson Springs. "I lost it in thirty seconds," he said. "Worked all my life for it and lost it in a matter of minutes."
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Dennis Brasher stands in front of his ruined hardware store in Dawson Springs. "I lost it in thirty seconds," he said. "Worked all my life for it and lost it in a matter of minutes."

Many of the people interviewed by NPR said they either lacked insurance or were underinsured. Another complication is that many of the people displaced by the storm are elderly and low income.

"My dad's 77 and my mom's 75," said Jeff Story, who worked Tuesday to clean up the ruins of his parents' farm and home just outside Dawson Springs. "It's all gone, everything they worked for."

Looking across the field of debris and wreckage, Story shook his head. "It's kind of overwhelming, you don't know where to start. There's so much destruction," he said.

Speaking Tuesday, Gov. Beshear acknowledged the scale of the rebuilding effort and the hardship faced by many families and business owners.

"We're going to need a lot from people over the coming weeks and months," said Gov. Beshear. "We're going to be working to rebuild long after the rest of the country has moved in a different direction, so let's stay strong."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 15, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
In an earlier version of this story, Beatriz Valero's name was misspelled as Beatrice, and her granddaughter Alayah's name was misspelled as Alaya.