MAYFIELD, Ky. — Three days after tornadoes tore a 200-mile wound through Kentucky, scores of people remained unaccounted for on Monday. At least 1,000 families were left homeless or struggling to repair severely damaged properties; thousands more had no electricity. Officials confirmed that 74 people had died — a toll that will almost certainly grow as crews continue to pick through mountains of rubble.
The agonizing aftermath of the tornadoes has compounded what was already a challenging year in Kentucky.
In February, a powerful ice storm downed trees and cut off power to 150,000 people in eastern Kentucky. In July, a flash flood left people stranded in their homes. Autumn brought a frightening spike in the coronavirus that made the pandemic “as bad in Kentucky as it has ever been,” Gov. Andy Beshear told residents as intensive care units filled and the death count climbed.
“And now we have this,” Mr. Beshear said during a disaster briefing on Monday morning, his voice freighted by the exhaustion and emotional toll of the latest crisis he has had to contend with since taking office two years ago.
“We’ll push through all of it because we don’t have a choice,” Mr. Beshear said. “And we’re strong enough to do it.”
The tornadoes, which included the largest in the state’s history, mangled many communities beyond recognition. In a state already challenged by some of the highest poverty rates in the United States, officials cautioned that recovery would be slow.
“This will go on for years,” said Michael Dossett, director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.
The devastation is staggering, but it also reflects a magnified version of a familiar story across the country as recurring disasters — many linked to the rippling consequences of a changing climate — are testing the bandwidth of state officials in ways they never have before.
At the center of this struggle in Kentucky is Mr. Beshear, whose connection to the disaster is especially personal. Among the hardest-hit communities is Dawson Springs, a town of just 2,600 people where his father was born and his grandfather owned a funeral home. Early on, the governor said, the list of the missing in that town alone was eight pages long, single-spaced. Elsewhere, he said, the dead included two of his uncle’s cousins in Muhlenberg County.
Mr. Beshear is two years into his first term and a somewhat unlikely presence as a Democrat leading a deeply conservative state. In a time of bitter division, he has navigated the state through the treacherous partisanship of mask mandates and vaccine requirements, as well as the upheaval and inflamed racial tensions stoked by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville last year.
The gravity of this most recent crisis was evident on Monday as Mr. Beshear strained to hold back tears at a news briefing. He choked up as he noted that the ages of those who died ranged from five months to 86 years. Eighteen victims were still unidentified. In the morning he reported the death toll as 64; by afternoon that number had risen to 74, with as many as 109 people still unaccounted for.
“I’m not doing so well today,” the governor said. “I was working on getting the confirmed deaths this morning and realized I was writing on the back of notes that one of my kids took from school.” The topic of the schoolwork was inertia, which he said was appropriate, adding, “We’re going to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
The governor noted the toll of compounding crises. “If dealing with all this isn’t enough, we have a pandemic,” he said. “It’s continuing, and it’s continuing to take lives of Kentuckians.”
President Biden, who intends to visit Kentucky on Wednesday, expressed concern about how the vast destruction and the uncertainty now facing survivors would weigh on the state’s collective mental health. “We’re going to be there as long as it takes to help,” he said at a news conference on Monday.
There were more concrete worries, too. Tom Watson, the mayor of Owensboro, Ky., marveled at the sheer magnitude of rubble and debris scattered across the state. “Where are they going to put all this junk?” he said. “In the country we usually just set it on fire. But this is 220 miles.”
Mr. Beshear, 44, was narrowly elected in 2019, and the turbulence picked up within months of his taking office. In March 2020, a 27-year-old cake maker at a Walmart in Cynthiana, Ky., was at the center of one of the earliest rural outbreaks of Covid-19 — an episode in the fumbling first days of the pandemic that offered a small taste of what was to come.
That month, Ms. Taylor was killed in a botched police raid on her apartment — a case that galvanized activists in Kentucky and was swept up in the broader reckoning over race prompted by the killing of George Floyd. Protests erupted in Louisville over the summer after a grand jury decided that the two police officers who shot Ms. Taylor while returning fire would not be charged, while a third officer would be charged with wanton endangerment for jeopardizing the lives of Ms. Taylor’s neighbors.
Later, Mr. Beshear demanded the release of the evidence presented to the jury, saying that people should be able to “come to their own conclusions about justice.”
“One of the problems we’ve had over the last six months is a total lack of explanation and information,” the governor said. “And the vacuum that’s created there — our emotions, frustrations — can truly fill that.”
This fall, as the pandemic intensified, Mr. Beshear sparred with Republican lawmakers who control the State Legislature and limited the measures that the governor could take to curb the virus’s spread. “If I had the ability to do it right now, we would have a masking order when you are in public and indoors,” he said in an appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”
By September, Kentucky had some of the worst incidence rates in the country.
“When you’re at war, you don’t get to cry about what you can or can’t do,” he said. “You have got to do your very best every day because this is a battle of life versus death.”
Polls show that the governor has been able to maintain his support among residents. One survey from Morning Consult in November found that 54 percent of Kentucky voters approved of his performance.
Trey Grayson, a Republican lawyer and lobbyist and former secretary of state, said that the overall tornado response has given Kentuckians a reason to come together despite an increasingly fractious partisan atmosphere in the Statehouse and beyond. “The state’s really united in rallying behind the governor and rallying behind the victims,” he said.
In the days before the tornadoes descended, there had been indications of rough storms. Still, it was December, outside of the season when residents knew to expect tornadoes. The storms swept in on Friday evening, and even in the darkness, it was clear that the impact was astonishing.
A candle factory with about 110 workers assumed to be inside had been shredded. In those early hours, at least 50 people were believed to be dead, though that number would eventually shrink. On Saturday morning, in one of the governor’s earliest briefings, one of the few certainties was that the sun would lift the veil of darkness to reveal something horrifying.
“Daybreak is going to bring more tough news,” he said.