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Supplies and workers are limited as communities start to rebuild after tornadoes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Among the six states ravaged by tornadoes last Friday night, the worst death toll was in Kentucky. Governor Andy Beshear says the storms killed 74 people in the state. They ranged between 2 months and 98 years old. And that toll may still rise as searchers continue digging up houses to find more than 100 people still reported missing. But Beshear says the state is also turning toward cleaning up and removing debris from the most devastated communities.

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ANDY BESHEAR: There's something therapeutic about taking that chaos and destruction and death and getting it out of some of those areas.

CORNISH: Joining us now from Mayfield, Ky., is NPR's David Schaper.

And, David, first, can you talk about what it looks like where you are?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, Audie. It's a little bit better every day. The roads are cleared, seeing a lot of heavy equipment moving and hauling away the knocked-down trees and branches of some of the rubble and twisted steel and the splintered wood from some of the hundreds of buildings here that were destroyed. And, you know, on every block, you see people, sometimes entire families, picking through what's left of their homes to see if they can find any belongings, whether it's clothes or dishes or some cherished mementos like photographs. One of them is 42-year-old Beatriz Valero.

BEATRIZ VALERO: Yes, we lost everything. It's very hard. But we're glad, and we're thankful to God 'cause we're alive. And it's a trauma 'cause I never thought I could've went through something like this.

SCHAPER: Then Valero's 8-year-old's granddaughter, Alayah, added some heartbreaking news.

ALAYAH: Yeah, the Christmas tree, I think, got sucked up with the presents.

VALERO: So you don't have - we don't have no more presents, right?

ALAYAH: Yeah. They're either in the pile or got sucked up.

SCHAPER: While the Valeros don't have the money to replace the Christmas gifts, there are donations pouring in from all across the country. And there's hope that some of those who have lost their Christmas gifts will see some of them replaced.

CORNISH: Ms. Valero mentions trauma. How are residents coping with all of this?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, some of them not real well. You walk around, and you see people walking with stunned look on their faces, very sullen and shocked looks at the - as they survey the level of destruction. One gentleman told me today that every time he comes back into town, he just cries. He loses it. Beatrice Valero told me she has anxiety, and she lost her medications to treat it, that she's not handling this trauma very well. She says she really can't sleep at night. She shakes at times. And she told me a story about getting into her husband's pickup truck. And as they were backing out, she felt like the truck was going to fall, just, you know, trauma and just - you know, just anxiety-ridden over something as simple as getting in the car and backing up.

CORNISH: It's a long road ahead emotionally. I want to talk about what policymakers are thinking about right now, meaning rebuilding, cleanup. It just - it seems like a monumental task.

SCHAPER: It is. And there are crews out all around Mayfield. They're putting up utility poles and stringing new power lines. I'm near where the city's water tower collapsed. And there are crews in this area working diligently around the clock to try to reestablish a water supply. But, you know, there's a big part of the city that's just totally devastated. I mean, it's gone. And there's so much work to be done. You know, a huge part of downtown was destroyed - so City Hall and government buildings, along with longtime shops and businesses. They're just gone. So the city of less than 10,000 people has to decide how it wants to rebuild itself. One man I talked with, a 73-year-old retiree, told me that it'll probably never be the same again, at least not while people of his generation are still around.

CORNISH: And federal resources - what's been deployed? What can people look forward to?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, FEMA is here, and they've been here since the very beginning. You know, local officials and state officials have been praising FEMA's response, which is not something we've always heard in disasters like this. State officials are here. And the other thing that's really interesting, Audie, is that the place is crawling with faith-based organizations that are helping provide aid, everything from local churches that are opening up as shelters to take people in to big groups from outside, like the Salvation Army and Red Cross.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper in Mayfield, Ky.

Thank you for your reporting.

SCHAPER: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.