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Kentucky county races to recover from devastating tornadoes

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Emergency response teams are surveying the damage in Kentucky and surrounding states after a string of massive storms ripped through the central U.S. late Friday. At least 30 tornadoes were reported across the region, and dozens are dead in Kentucky alone. One of the hardest-hit areas - Hopkins County in western Kentucky. Jack Whitfield Jr. is the judge executive of Madisonville in Hopkins County, and he's here to tell us more. Thanks so much for making the time.

FLORIDO: Yes. Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: I understand you've been out surveying the damage today. Can you tell me what you are seeing in your town and in the surrounding towns?

JACK WHITFIELD JR: Well, we had just a massive tornado come through parts of Hopkins County, and we're seeing hundreds of houses severely damaged or completely destroyed. We've got a city that's - a huge percentage of their homes are just gone. They have no electricity and no gas, but there's a lot of gas lines busted during the tornado. So we've got a small city here in Hopkins County that's really struggling right now and a few other areas that were very, very hard hit as well. It was just a huge tornado up to a mile wide, very high winds. And we just have a lot of damage and a lot of people suffering right now.

FLORIDO: When was the last time, Mr. Whitfield, that you recall seeing a storm of this size coming through Hopkins County?

WHITFIELD: We've had several tornadoes in the past. In 2005, we had quite a bit of damage. But we've never seen a tornado with a track this long. You know, this tornado was on the ground for almost 200 miles across several states. So it's really unprecedented.

FLORIDO: I understand that you've been helping to set up a team of coroners to help with the recovery of victims. I'd like to ask you about that team, but I also would like to know if - I imagine rescue efforts are still underway.

WHITFIELD: Yes. Yes, we definitely have rescues still going. We have teams going house to house make sure that that we find everybody that we can. We've got equipment, sheriff's deputies, police department, fire department, volunteer fire department, volunteers. We've got just a massive number of people trying to comb through the wreckage looking for anybody that may still be in there.

FLORIDO: What is your chief concern at this moment?

WHITFIELD: The major concern right now is still just getting through that wreckage and finding anybody that may still be alive buried in some of these houses. And we've got cold weather moving in now. So as the clock ticks, the chances decrease on a constant basis. So we're trying to make as much progress as quickly as we can on recovery.

FLORIDO: Before we let you go, you know, obviously, you're still in the thick of this emergency here. There's rescue efforts underway. But as you start to think about the overall recovery of your town and surrounding towns, the region from the damage and this tragedy, what's on your mind about what needs to happen now and in the near future?

WHITFIELD: Well, we're going to have to start work on a rebuilding plan. It'll be months of cleanup and then trying to plan how we go forward with this community, how we rebuild not only the houses but the economy. For a small community like this, right now it's difficult in the best of times. And with an event like this, it just makes it even harder than it would otherwise be.

FLORIDO: That was Madisonville Kentucky Judge Executive Jack Whitfield Jr. Mr. Whitfield, thanks so much for your time. And please stay safe out there.

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