State officials confirm at least 12 dead in Kentucky, more than 200 injured

Vehicles, including two police cruisers, are piled up in front of the West Liberty, Ky. City Hall Friday, March 2, 2012, following a tornado strike. Photo by John Flavell
Vehicles, including two police cruisers, are piled up in front of the West Liberty, Ky. City Hall Friday, March 2, 2012, following a tornado strike. Photo by John Flavell

Waves of violent weather spawned severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail and torrential rains across the state Friday afternoon, leaving Kentucky with a death toll that was quickly rising into the night.

As of 11 p.m., state and local officials had confirmed a total of at least 12 deaths and more than 200 injuries statewide. Those included four deaths in Menifee County, three in Kenton County and one in Morgan County, according to Buddy Rogers, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

There were at least four deaths in the East Bernstadt area of Laurel County, said Laurel County coroner Douglas Bowling and Gilbert Acciardo, spokesman for the Laurel County Sheriff. Ann Blackford, a University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital spokeswoman, said the hospital's trauma unit had been put on code yellow alert, which means to expect mass casualties. As of 10 p.m., some patients had already arrived and more were on the way, Blackford said.

Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency all across Kentucky about 6 p.m., saying the move would enable local officials to quickly access state resources for recovery efforts. Beshear authorized the deployment of 275 Kentucky National Guard troops to Morgan, Menifee, Magoffin, Laurel and Johnson counties on Friday night to assist with storm recovery efforts.

The governor said state agencies were gathering reports of damage across the state from the Commonwealth Emergency Operations Center (CEOC), part of Kentucky Emergency Management. He said information was to be released by the state's emergency operations through Saturday as updates occur. Beshear plans to tour the most devastated areas Saturday morning, including Morgan, Menifee and Kenton counties.

The vicious storms marked Kentucky's second bout with tornadoes this week. On Wednesday, A dozen tornadoes caused damage in communities from the far western to the eastern end of Kentucky — including Henderson, Morgan and Muhlenberg.

Trained spotters and law enforcement officers throughout the state reported 13 tornadoes in Kentucky on Friday, according to the state. Several locations declared states of emergency, including: Bath, Campbell, Johnson, Kenton, Laurel, Rowan and Trimble counties and the city of Paintsville.

Much of the concern Friday night centered on the Morgan County seat of West Liberty and nearby Menifee County. Significant damage also was reported in Salyersville, Paintsville and in Laurel County.

Officials at the National Weather Service at Jackson said they had received reports that "major tornadoes" had swept across Morgan County.

The storm flattened the center of West Liberty, causing widespread damage to homes, businesses and other buildings. As the night wore on, state officials collected more reports of damage, and photos from downtown West Liberty showed widespread devastation.

Lexington's chapter of the American Red Cross dispatched crew members to West Liberty to determine what help residents need, including shelters, food or supplies, director Winn Stephens said. Communications in the West Liberty area was difficult late Friday, as many cellular phone towers seemed to be out in the area.

The Red Cross also sent crews to Lawrence County, where there were reports that some homes were destroyed or damaged. Officials there had requested an emergency shelter.

Kentucky State Police at Pikeville said troopers at the Morehead Post, which covers West Liberty, were requesting assistance early Friday evening.

"They've asked that we send a rescue squad from our post district to assist them," said Sgt. Jennifer Sandlin of Pikeville Post. "There may be some possible entrapments due to storm damage ... I'm assuming to residences."

Lexington Fire Battalion Chief Ed Davis said Morgan County officials requested assistance from the Bluegrass Emergency Response Team, which includes building collapse specialists and equipment. About a dozen firefighter-paramedics from Lexington, Madison County and Jessamine County also were on the way, Davis said.

At least four people died in the East Bernstadt area of Laurel County Friday night. The victims were killed in home collapses on Bentley Road and Arthur Ridge Road northeast of London, Bowling said.

At least 27 people were transported to Saint Joseph Hospital in London, said Albert Hale, director of emergency management for Laurel County.

Ward Stokes, assistant chief of the London-Laurel County Rescue Squad, said the storm came through between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m.

"We've just got a path of destruction through two or three neighborhoods," Stokes said.

When rescuers got on the scene there were a number of mobile homes overturned and torn apart with people trapped inside, he said. Rescuers had finished an initial house-to-house search by 10:15 p.m., but were still looking for survivors, Stokes said.

A local hospital sent nurses to triage patients as they were rescued, he said.

There were "lots of injuries," said Kentucky State Police Trooper Don Trosper.

Trosper said numerous homes had been destroyed.

Area resident Joanie Rogers, 32, said she was outside on the porch of her mobile home when she saw a funnel cloud in the flashes of lighting. She took shelter at a nearby neighbor's house.

"Several homes and mobile homes were flattened," Rogers said.

She said neighbors told her that two families were trapped under debris from their mobile homes. She said one family fled their mobile home and took shelter under a cliff, where a tree fell and blocked them in.

Tommy Houston, 48, who lives about two miles from East Bernstadt, said his house was severely damaged by the storm.

Houston said he and his wife were home watching storm coverage when the power went out. He heard a really loud sound and he and his wife went into the bathroom for protection.

They heard glass breaking and a tree fell on the house, crashing through the roof and into the living room, Houston said. Wind also tore the roof off his garage.

"It just hit and was gone," he said.

After cutting a tree that fell across his driveway, Houston said he went to check on his neighbors. There were a couple who were missing and he couldn't locate them, he said.

Preparing for the storm

Friday's storm commanded attention throughout the day from most Kentuckians.

For many, it was a day of fear fueled by a series of severe thunderstorm warnings, tornado warnings and flash flood watches. Virtually every county in the area was under some kind of warning through the afternoon and evening.

The frightening and often confusing weather news brought back memories of the tornadoes that devastated parts of southeast Lexington in March 1986; the twister than plowed through the Masterson Station subdivision in 2004; or, worst of all, the wave of tornadoes that swept across Kentucky and nearby states on April 3, 1974.

In '74, 148 twisters killed 330 people and injured almost 5,500 in 13 states. The storms killed 77 people in Kentucky, injured more than 1,377 and caused an estimated $110 million in damages.

On Friday, Kentucky emergency management officials urged people to prepare a shelter in advance of the storms.

Dozens of schools districts, including the Fayette County Public School system, dismissed students early Friday afternoon;; Kentucky universities, including the University of Kentucky, canceled all campus activities; and businesses and city governments quickly made the decision to end the work day early.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray sent non-emergency city workers home at 2 p.m., and urged local businesses to do the same.

"We want to get everyone home safely," Gray said.

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