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Meteorologists want to confirm how many tornadoes touched down in Western Kentucky

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Even as rescuers look for the missing in western Kentucky, meteorologists are looking for clues. They're conducting site surveys along 200 miles of destruction. They want to confirm how many tornadoes really touched down. Derek Operle of our member station WKMS followed a team east of Mayfield.

DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: The devastation in Mayfield is undeniable. Generators are the only way to get power. Some houses don't have roofs, and others aren't standing at all. Debris covers the ground. Wrapping paper and Christmas stockings caked in mud lie near the feet of Josh Riley, a Mayfield resident checking on his aunt and uncle's house.

JOSH RILEY: The house is just annihilated. It's just like the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out here. Some of these buildings have been here since the late 1800s and early 1900s, and they're just - it's just wiped off the face of the Earth. I mean, they're done. I mean, there's no rebuilding them.

OPERLE: That damage is what National Weather Service meteorologist Kelsey Angle is here to study. Several government teams are crisscrossing the path of the storm to record what they call damage indicators. They look at structures and environmental features. He notes the uprooted trees and snapped trunks, the shingles torn off of roofs and the amount of broken glass.

KELSEY ANGLE: All of those are indication of - damage indicators that we can correlate to an estimated wind speed with this particular tornado.

OPERLE: The tornado that went through Mayfield was at least an EF3, meaning winds were up to 206 miles per hour. But it's likely this tornado was actually much stronger in some places, which is what this team of meteorologists is examining. Angle says studies like this are essential to better help meteorologists forecast dangerous weather events and to prevent greater tragedies in the future.

ANGLE: Lives are changed in just a matter of seconds, and it certainly takes days, weeks, months, even years from a recovery standpoint to rebuild, start to heal and, you know, move forward.

OPERLE: Local business owner Darryl Fulcher is one of those who will have to rebuild. He got a text message early Saturday telling him his septic tank company had been destroyed. Two days later, a crew was helping him clean up what was left of his workshop.

DARRYL FULCHER: I see a little daylight at the end of the tunnel, so I can't give up. And we're Americans, and we're going to pull together and we're going to do this.

OPERLE: Due to the length of the storm's path, Angle thinks it will take at least several more days to complete the damage and strength survey, but he knows that people here in Mayfield will be dealing with the aftermath for much longer. For NPR News, I'm Derek Operle in Mayfield, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "WE WERE THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Derek Operle