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Graves County, Kentucky, facing devastation after severe storms


Tornadoes ripped through parts of the South and Midwest overnight. There are reports of deaths and severe injuries in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky. One of the places especially hard-hit seems to be Graves County, Ky., in the southwest corner of the state.

And we're joined now from the city of Mayfield by Derek Operle of member station WKMS.

Derek, thank you for being there for us. Tell us what you see.

DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: It's no problem. On my way in this morning through north Graves County, as we neared Mayfield proper, we began to see downed power lines, homes and businesses just ripped apart by these high-speed winds overnight - overturned tractor trailers, trees ripped up by the roots. And there was a Dollar General that looked like it had just been folded right over.

SIMON: Yeah.

OPERLE: This is just a truly incredible storm.

SIMON: Have you been able to speak with officials there?

OPERLE: We have not been able to speak directly with officials at this time. Amongst the officials that we have been able to get statements from, there just seems to be a general feeling of devastation. When Governor Andy Beshear gave a press conference early this morning around 4 a.m. Central, he said the tornado's path here in Kentucky went through 19 counties and that likely there were more than 50 dead after the storm outbreak here Friday evening and early Saturday. He also mentioned Mayfield Consumer Products, a local candle factory here in Mayfield, where 110 people were inside when the storm hit. And their factory collapsed. The governor expects dozens of casualties from that site alone.

SIMON: What about residents? What have you been able to find out, Derek?

OPERLE: I think that everybody is just generally in disbelief - you know, in sheer awe of the power of this weather event. The city's historic downtown is in ruins. There are store facades completely ripped off - the town courthouse - severely hit by this storm. One business owner, Jason Acree, is now facing a catastrophic destruction for the second time in a decade, as he lost his fitting and hose business to a 2016 tornado. And now he'll be starting over again. A local gym-goer we found visiting the empty shell of her local CrossFit place, where she was working out just, you know, 24 hours earlier. I think this disaster is going to stick with the community for a long time.

SIMON: Derek, what - where do the rescue efforts seem to be devoting their attention now?

OPERLE: Well, there's a pretty wide swath of destruction across western Kentucky. The tornado started in Missouri's boot heel before crossing into Arkansas, Tennessee and finally Kentucky, traveling over 200 miles altogether. There's just a lot of debris on the ground. Search and rescue operations are going on across Mayfield and in the region as emergency service professionals are getting the situation fully under control so the recovery effort can begin.

SIMON: Derek Operle of member station WKMS, talking about the tornado that hit Graves County, Ky., and much of the surrounding area.

Derek, thank you very much. I know you must be very busy. Thanks for making the time for us.

OPERLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Derek Operle