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Rescue and recovery efforts continue in the South and Midwest after deadly storms

DON GONYEA, HOST:

One day in, storm recovery efforts have barely made a dent in the devastation throughout much of Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, Arkansas and neighboring states. As many as 30 tornadoes touched off by the same system Friday night wreaked havoc in cities and towns. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN has been reporting in the hard-hit city of Mayfield, Ky., where dozens died in a factory that was flattened. Blake, thank you for joining us.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Oh, thank you, Don.

GONYEA: Where does the cleanup stand now?

FARMER: Well, you know, if it says anything, you still have to drive over lots of downed wires in these neighborhoods, and some roads are only just now passable after big trackhoes spent the day plucking away piles of giant oaks that were just crisscrossed over roads. People I've been talking to are just looking for necessities to pull out of their homes. And, of course, so many are still stunned and on the verge of tears. I talked to Megan Williams (ph) on her porch as she was piling up what few necessities she could locate scattered around their house, where the roof was peeled off. And while they were in the basement during the tornado, a massive tree also crashed through her bedroom, where she and her twin 5-year-olds sleep.

MEGAN WILLIAMS: I'm trying to get my kids' clothes. My clothes are in there. What clothes that was in the dryer - maybe some of mine are in there. But this way I look at it, as long as they have something to wear, I'm OK.

FARMER: They really are pretty close to just getting out with the clothes on their back. And they don't expect to see this house again. Many homes that are still standing were so badly twisted and jerked by the storm, they'll have to be torn down.

GONYEA: It sounds like this will change the face of this town.

FARMER: Totally. And we're not even talking about numbers of structures damaged yet because it feels almost countless at the moment. To give you an idea, even the fire station, police station, the jail, the courthouse, the mayor's office were all heavily damaged. Many homes right near town built around 1900 or so were flattened. Some residents, we know, died in them. We don't know how many yet. Of course, just at the edge of town is this candle factory that was smashed to bits, with dozens believed killed. But even late into the day yesterday, they pulled a worker out alive. And today, Kentucky state officials say federal teams with special search dogs will continue to help locate survivors.

GONYEA: So the damage is clearly very widespread. It sounds historic. Do we know how this storm compares to others?

FARMER: At least in Kentucky's history, state officials say there has not been anything quite like this. One tornado tracked 200 miles through the state after first touching down in Arkansas and just ate up everything in its path. It's not just Mayfield, where I am. The smaller town of Dawson Springs - 70 miles away - was pretty well flattened, too. And there were other tornadoes, including one that hit the larger city of Bowling Green a couple of hours away. Major General Haldane Lamberton leads the National Guard in Kentucky.

HALDANE LAMBERTON: History will tell us that 1975 was one of the most deadly tornado outbreaks, and we're set to surpass that. But we're not about breaking records for the event - we're about breaking records for response.

FARMER: But that response has folks spread very thin. In some cases where communications are down, guardsmen are still going door to door, just checking on folks because there's just no way to reach people. They should be getting more help from FEMA - that's rolling in today, but there is much to be done. And in many cases, the cleanup is on hold until they find all the missing and those who perished.

GONYEA: Any idea how many that may be?

FARMER: There's no firm number yet, but Governor Andy Beshear says it could be more than 100 and that touring the damage yesterday, the situation was far worse than he expected.

GONYEA: Blake, thank you for the update.

FARMER: You're welcome.

GONYEA: That's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN, reporting from Mayfield, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.
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