Against his custom, Ernie Aiken, an 86-year-old retired mechanic and father of three, decided on Friday night, when tornado alarms went off, to stay in the caravan that called home and not take refuge in the store across the street. , better prepared for the storm. It would have made the same thing: in a few minutes there was no trace of either structure. His partner of 25 years and her daughter, Melissa Addams, were looking for a souvenir of their loved one on Monday morning – his favorite sneakers, the uniforms he wore every day despite being retired … – in a full lot of debris from Dawson Springs, one of the towns hardest hit by the disaster. Aiken’s body was found on Saturday, hundreds of meters away. “At least, we have that consolation. We can bury him, ”Addams said through tears.
Aiken is one of the 13 dead in a town of just over 2,000 inhabitants, where they are still looking for dozens of missing persons. He is also the oldest victim of the 64 deceased in Kentucky, according to the latest figure, lower than feared, given to the press this Monday morning by Governor Andy Beshear. “The age range goes from five months to 86 years,” he added, his voice cracking with emotion. “There are still a hundred missing. We will have to wait a week or two to know the final number ”.
At 44, Beshear is the second-youngest governor in the country, as well as a pedigree Democrat. His father, Steve Beshear, was also Governor of the State between 2007 and 2015. His family comes from Dawson Springs, a fact that has slid his management of the catastrophe towards the personal realm, with frequent hints of crying in his public appearances. He took the reins from the beginning. And it has become the main source of information on what happened in Kentucky, the state hardest hit by a series of 30 tornadoes of historic proportions that also affected Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.
In handling the data, he has not been afraid to fall short in his pessimism. Already in the first hours he offered a calculation by which there was no doubt that the death toll would exceed one hundred. Three days later those figures begin to be in question.
Especially after a representative of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, ground zero of the catastrophe, said on Sunday night that eight people had died, and that another 10 remained missing. Beshear has spoken all weekend about dozens of deaths at that factory alone, and recalled in his press conference on Sunday that they had not found any survivors since Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
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The company says most of the 110 workers working Friday were able to reach the tornado shelter. That then each one went their own way, and that it is being very difficult to locate them (for now, a spokesman added, they have found 90). Electricity in Mayfield, and parts of western Kentucky within 50 miles, has not returned yet, and cell phones are not easy to charge. A dozen residents of that town of 10,000 inhabitants have told EL PAÍS stories these days that speak of the difficulty of getting hold of their family and friends in this way.
In light of these data, Beshear explained that the information handled by the authorities does not coincide with that of the owners of the factory, where they continue, protected by military police patrols, the debris removal tasks.
Obviously, if I was wrong, that would be wonderful; I pray that it is so, ”said Beshear. In one of his first appearances, he shared his grief over the loss of two distant relatives (two cousins of his uncle, in Muhlenberg County). Afterward, he apologized for being emotional, especially remembering the Dawson Springs victims: “The town has practically disappeared,” he explained. “Some of my best memories are on the porch of my grandparents’ house, where I went every year for Christmas and to celebrate the barbecue party.” The porch was still there this Monday, but the devastation of the houses around it was terrifying.
While Mayfield has become the symbol of this wave of tornadoes, there are areas of Dawson County even more affected – although the comparisons are more hideous than usual in the tragedy. At the epicenter of the destruction, a lower-middle class neighborhood, only one M-60 tank remains standing, pride of place 310 of the American Legion, an association of veterans spread throughout the country, whose building, meeting place social, today is just a memory.
Beshear’s grandfather was a pastor at the Early Baptist Church, which remains standing but lost part of the roof Friday night. He also ran a funeral home, which is still linked to the family. Three miles away (a little less than five kilometers), there is an artificial lake named after the Beshear and a traffic sign at the entrance to the town reminds that Steve Beshear, father of the current governor, was born there.
“I used to play basketball in high school with Steve,” Pastor Bobby Hawtin proudly said Monday, who has turned his parish into a place to feed survivors. On Sunday, he added with redoubled pride, they cooked 300 hamburgers.
Next to the church where Beshear’s grandfather preached lives Tracy McGhee. He speaks fondly of the times that he was in his house, “a construction from 1903 that has managed to stand up to the tornado.” McGhee believes that the governor is doing “a wonderful job in this crisis.” “And I think all the people will agree with me.”
For now, Beshear has announced his intention to run again in the 2023 elections, and these are the occasions that a good politician knows that he can emerge as a hero in the eyes of his voters. It is an important place: Kentucky is a state with a political leadership in Washington that surely exceeds that of its representation by population (with 4.6 million, it occupies the 26th position in the Union). It is the homeland of President Abraham Lincoln and Senator Mitch McConnell, who in 2018 snatched the recently deceased Bob Dole the record as the longest-lived leader of the Republican Party in history.
It also saw the birth of Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has been at the center of a controversy these days. When Beshear asked (and obtained from President Joe Biden, who is expected here Wednesday) the declaration of a state of emergency for the area, he gave his immediate support. Good news in such a polarized country? The problem is that Paul, also the son of an illustrious politician, has a long history of harshly criticizing the times in which that aid fund has been enabled, such as when the hurricane Sandy it devastated lower New York in 2012 or in dire times like those experienced in Puerto Rico, Louisiana and Mississippi by other cyclones.
While that aid arrives, the neighbors of Kentucky are struggling on their account in the recovery, that could take years, according to Michael Dossett of the emergency service of the state. It is astonishing to see how quickly utility poles have been erected, still missing more than 50,000 residents, on the Princeton road. In Dawson Springs, Richard Fuson had called friends Monday morning to rebuild the home he left behind on Friday, when he grabbed his car and sped it in the “right direction” to escape the tornado. Others of his neighbors have organized to make a raid by the houses. In those that are still standing, they spray paint the number of their tenants. If there is an “OK” next to it, good news. A cross indicates the worst.
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