Death toll at 20 in tornado-ravaged Kentucky counties

Velma Dulen becomes emotional holding a picture collage of her grandchildren Saturday March 3, 2012 in West Liberty. Volunteers from Johnson County helped her look through her destroyed home in the background for family treasures. Photo by John Flavell
Velma Dulen becomes emotional holding a picture collage of her grandchildren Saturday March 3, 2012 in West Liberty. Volunteers from Johnson County helped her look through her destroyed home in the background for family treasures. Photo by John Flavell Herald-Leader

Kentucky's death toll from a wave of violent storms Friday climbed steadily on Saturday, reaching 20 fatalities with an estimated 300 injured and at least one man missing.

The storms were the worst to hit the eastern part of Kentucky in almost 25 years. EF3 tornados hit Magoffin, Menifee and Morgan counties, east of Lexington, and an EF2 tornado hit Laurel County, in southeastern Kentucky, the National Weather Service said.

The EF scale, which goes from 0 to 5, rates tornadoes based on wind speed. An EF3 storm has speeds of 136 mph to 165 mph. An EF2 measures 111 mph to 135 mph. An EF2 or higher is considered a significant tornado.

Kentucky Army National Guard Specialist James Moore said at least 27 counties reported storm damage.

Gov. Steve Beshear visited scenes of destruction and spoke by phone with both President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"The scope and magnitude of devastation in some of our communities is unlike anything I have ever seen," Beshear said. "I've been in close contact with President Obama ... to ensure we will have the resources our families will need to recover from these storms."

According to a statement from the White House, the president said the full extent of damage might not be known for days, and Obama told Beshear and the governors of Ohio and Indiana that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to provide assistance.

As dawn came Saturday, Kentuckians in many areas devastated by the storms began sorting through the wreckage of homes and business, hoping to find treasured possessions and the hope to rebuild and carry on.

Keisha Cornett was shocked and relieved to find her parents' home on Possom Hollow Road in Menifee County still standing.

"I had heard it was gone," she said. "I can't believe it."

In West Liberty, Roger Rose surveyed the wreckage of his store, Fashion Furniture, and said he wasn't sure what the future might hold.

"I'm 67 years old," Rose said. "The building is gone, and all the furniture is gone. I don't know. I have some insurance. I probably don't have enough."

Dale Oakley, who works at a West Liberty auto parts store, said the devastation reminded him of the 1974 tornado that leveled Xenia, Ohio. Oakley was a deputy sheriff in Xenia at the time.

"Xenia, being a bigger town, had more damage," he said. "Looking at this, it's the same, but in a different place.

"It will never be exactly like it was, but we'll pick up, put it back together, and it will still be West Liberty. People will make a town."

Reports of the state death toll changed frequently Saturday as crews searched the hardest-hit areas.

State officials said there were five fatalities in Laurel County, three in Kenton County, two in Johnson County, two in Menifee County, two in Lawrence County, and four in Morgan County, for a total of 18 statewide. But Morgan Coroner Raymond VanCleave and Deputy Coroner Jason Frederick told the Herald-Leader that six people were dead in the county, which would push the state total to 20.

As more weather information came in, the strength of the storms became starkly evident. The National Weather Service said an EF3 tornado hit West Liberty; no EF3 tornado had been seen in the region since May 1988, when such a twister hit Bell County.

West of West Liberty, perhaps hundreds of mature trees were leveled, all pointing in the same direction so that the tornado's path was clearly evident. The tops of dozens of still-standing tree trunks were sheared off, so that they had the appearance of being cut by a giant weed trimmer.

In Salyersville, shop owners stood watch over their properties Saturday, boarding up windows of the few stores still standing.

"I've never seen anything like this except on TV," said Gaylean Back, manager of the Parkway Quick Mart and motel, which sheltered about 20 people during Friday's storm.

Deborah Poe of Salyersville said she and her family decided to take shelter only minutes before the storm struck. They returned to find nothing left of their home but the concrete foundation and a pile of splintered wood.

"Nothing would have survived that," Poe said. But something did: Poe's bed, which was still made and had barely moved. Under it was Poe's fox terrier, Daisy, who somehow survived without a scratch.

"She'd have to be the miracle dog," Poe said.

Power was still out in all of central Magoffin County, and there was no immediate timetable for restoring it, officials said.

Ann Blackford, a spokeswoman for UK Hospital, said 22 storm victims had been treated there, but 18 were expected to be released by Saturday evening.

The Appalachian Regional Hospital in Morgan County sustained some damage, but remained in operation.

Albert Hale, emergency service director for Laurel County, said preliminary assessments showed 67 homes destroyed there, plus 32 with major damage and an additional 116 with some damage.

Hale said the storm which hit Laurel plowed a 3-mile track across the northern part of the county.

Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and various lawmakers visited storm-stricken areas Saturday morning. Beshear saw damage in communities in Morgan, Magoffin and Kenton counties; Abramson assessed East Bernstadt in Laurel County.

Meanwhile, Beshear signed a consumer-protection executive order, implementing Kentucky's price-gouging laws statewide. The move will allow investigations into any complaints of price gouging involving gas, building supplies, hotel rooms and goods and services.

The governor declared a state of emergency statewide Friday. A dozen counties declared individual states of emergency, and the city of Paintsville declared a state of emergency.

Beshear dispatched more than 220 National Guard troops to assist storm relief efforts in Johnson, Laurel, Magoffin, Menifee and Morgan counties.

The city of Lexington sent emergency crews and a heavy duty rescue truck to assist West Liberty on Friday night and dispatched more personnel there Saturday. The city also sent fire and code-enforcement officials.

With first responders still involved in rescue efforts, state officials urged members of the public not to drive through or to travel into affected areas in an unsolicited effort to help.

State police were restricting access to West Liberty on Saturday night in an attempt to keep out looters and sightseers.

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