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Survivors Of The Deadly Tornadoes Are Left Picking Up The Pieces After The Devastation

“The reality has now set in that Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation as it stands is no longer,” the director of a nursing home told BuzzFeed News, “and it won’t ever be the same.”

Last updated on December 17, 2021, at 3:52 p.m. ET

Posted on December 16, 2021, at 5:11 p.m. ET

Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images

Sarah Stewart did not expect there to be nothing left of the nursing home she operated in Mayfield, Kentucky, after a tornado struck the building. She and her husband drove to the facility last Friday night after receiving word that it had been hit, and she thought that the residents and staff would be sheltering inside.

“At that time, I didn’t know we were going to be in an evacuation situation,” she told BuzzFeed News. But as they arrived at Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation, “even in the dark, you could sense the devastation,” Stewart said.

Kentucky was the hardest-hit state by the tornado event, which killed 76 people — including 12 children — there as of Thursday. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said that 3,280 people are still without power, nearly a week later, and most of them are in Mayfield, one of the most devastated cities. The National Weather Service has confirmed that multiple tornadoes touched down in Kentucky from Friday night through Saturday morning, and officials are still monitoring the severity and extent of the extreme weather events.

Including Kentucky, at least 88 people have died across several states, and the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days.

It wasn’t until Saturday morning that it dawned on Stewart, the regional director of operations at ClearView Healthcare Management, which operates Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation, that the building was a “total loss.” But Stewart called it “the miracle of Mayfield,” because though the facility was completely demolished, permanently displacing 74 residents, none of them or the roughly 15 staffers were injured or killed.

“I think everyone is sad; we don’t know what the future holds,” she said, adding that it’s “too soon” to tell if they’ll be able to rebuild the facility.

Some rooms even had ceiling pieces or bricks in the bed. “By the looks of the building, you would not believe that no one was injured,” Stewart said.

With the help of volunteers, everyone was evacuated from the nursing home by daybreak on Saturday. At the time, many residents asked her when they would go back “home,” Stewart said, but “the reality has now set in that Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation as it stands is no longer … and it won’t ever be the same.”

Courtesy Molly McCaffrey

For four days after the tornadoes touched down in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Molly McCaffrey couldn't access her cars inside her garage. Since the massive tornado event on Friday, she had been renting a car and staying at her mom's place.

Though the weather didn't affect her house, the telephone poles in her backyard fell, leaving dozens of cables dangerously blocking her garage. She and her neighbors, some of whose houses were damaged, lost power and internet.

By Wednesday, the power returned to McCaffrey's house and she and her husband were planning to move back in. But not all her neighbors have been as lucky. With rain and a cold spell expected later in the week, McCaffrey told BuzzFeed News she's offered her mom's house as a temporary place to stay for some neighbors.

"We are also offering hotel rooms to people because it’s going to get cold later in the week," she said.

In McCaffrey's neighborhood, she said hundreds of volunteers have turned up to help. "People have just shown up in our neighborhood and picked up chainsaws and branches," she said. "Hundreds of them are here every day moving branches."

Bowling Green had been under a tornado warning all day on Friday, McCaffrey said. She and her husband went to bed at 11 p.m., but emergency alerts on their phones woke them up two hours later. They put on their coats and shoes in case they had to go outside, and took shelter in a small windowless hallway in their house. At about 1:20 a.m., it got loud.

"I would say that metaphorically it sounded like a train, but realistically, it just sounded like the loudest rain and the loudest hail you've ever heard," McCaffrey said. "You could hear things flying through the air. You could hear things hitting trees and roofs and you could hear things snapping. And we became very afraid at that point. And then I said, 'I think we're in trouble.'"

In Dawson Springs, Kentucky, Breeana Glisson told CNN that while the tornado ripped through her city, she held onto her two kids in her bed. The roof collapsed, crushing her arm. Seconds later, she and the kids were no longer in their house.

"When I opened my eyes and looked around, I had no idea where I was. None," she told CNN. "All I could do was stand up and scream for help and try to find someone to help me and my kids."

Glisson has a broken arm and her head is injured and face bruised, according to CNN, but her kids are physically unscathed. Their house, however, was destroyed.

A stay-at-home mom, Glisson said her expenses are stretched thin from having to pay for a motel room for her family. She told CNN, "We have nowhere to go."

The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Homes destroyed by a tornado is seen from an aerial view on Dec. 12, 2021, in Mayfield, Kentucky.

Many families are also dealing with the death of a loved one. On Facebook, two parents shared the news that their 2-month-old baby died after sustaining injuries. She was in her car seat when the tornado hit, according to the Facebook post, and died a few days later at the hospital.

The father, Douglas Koon, told the Washington Post that the tornado threw him around like a "rag doll" until he and his wife ended up in their neighbor's yard. Once they came to their senses, they heard their 4-year-old son, Dallas, calling for them, and then found their other son and Koon's mother-in-law under debris.

They found their 2-month-old daughter still in her car seat, and while she appeared to be fine within the next few hours, she continued to bleed internally, he said. Doctors told Koon and his wife that she would most likely be brain dead the rest of her life, the Washington Post reported. On Monday, they took their daughter off life support.

The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Mayfield Consumers Products candle factory is seen from an aerial view as workers search for survivors on Dec.12, 2021, in Mayfield, Kentucky.

The number of casualties among people who were working when the tornadoes struck has also raised questions about working conditions in several facilities.

Employees of a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, told NBC News that their employers threatened to fire them if they left work to avoid the tornado that hit Friday. The company denied the allegations, saying "employees can leave any time they want to leave" and return the next day.

The tornado leveled the factory and killed eight people inside. Several employees have filed a lawsuit against the company alleging safety violations.

Attorney John Caudill, who previously represented one of the factory’s employees in a discrimination case, told BuzzFeed News that about half a dozen employees and former employees have reached out to him in the past few days. (Caudill is not involved in the latest lawsuit.)

Because it was the holiday season, the factory was at its busiest, and employees worked late on Friday to fulfill orders. Beshear said about 110 people were in the building when it collapsed.

“Some tragedies are not preventable,” Caudill said. ”Some tragedies happen without fault or blame, but there are a lot of questions that are yet to be answered.”

“The storm … had been in progress for over 100 miles and known about for at least an hour, so that begs the question: Why is anyone in this building?” Caudill said, describing how the factory is largely open with few places to hide from the storm.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the factory in 2019 and ordered a fine of $16,350 for 12 violations, seven of them considered “serious” concerns.

On Mayfield Consumer Products' website, CEO Troy Propes stated the company has set up an emergency fund for those affected by the tornado.

"We’re heartbroken about this, and our immediate efforts are to assist those affected by this terrible disaster," Propes said. "Our company is family-owned and our employees, some who have worked with us for many years, are cherished."

Bobby Towe, an Amazon flex driver in Nashville, was driving at 3:30 a.m. when his phone and the tornado sirens alerted him to take cover. He drove into a tunnel — which he now said was a bad idea — and recorded a TikTok.

Towe told BuzzFeed News that if nothing else, he hoped his video would encourage people to take tornado warnings more seriously.

"If this gets real, if this is going to be my last video, people can take this a lot more serious," he said.

Towe and his family were not significantly impacted by the tornadoes. But not all Amazon workers in the states hit by tornadoes were as fortunate. In Edwardsville, Illinois, at least six people working in an Amazon warehouse died after a building collapsed, raising concerns about why employees were working despite the deadly weather event. Reuters reported that some employees said they took shelter in the bathroom.

“It’s organized chaos,” Rich Walker, chair of the Edwardsville Community Relief Fund, which Walker said has raised over $1.2 million in donations since the tornadoes. Walker told BuzzFeed News the city is still in a pick-up phase, collecting debris in dumpsters.

Teams separate wood or other raw materials when they can, but the “mangled” construction materials make it difficult to categorize types of waste when “time is of the essence,” Walker said, to get residents’ life back on track.

Edwardsville residents had power, water and other utilities completely restored as of Friday afternoon, he said. Clean-up crews are awaiting assessments from the state and city public works departments on the environmental damage to the area, such as the potential of hazardous waste entering the air or waterways, he told BuzzFeed News.

The most difficult moment, he said, was a vigil Friday morning for the six Amazon workers who died. Community members gathered for a moment of silence “to remember in all of the hecticness of the last week, that they’re real people who had Christmas plans and travel plans. There will be an empty seat at the table this year,” Walker said, adding that the “human cost” of the event can easily be missed when logistical responses are prioritized.

“Those families sacrificed more than anyone else,” Walker said.

Correction: The current death toll of at least 88 includes the 76 confirmed dead in Kentucky. A previous version of this story said there were 88 deaths in five other states.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.