Ky. tornado death toll rises to 19

Carol Rhodes picked through the debris of her life Saturday morning, clutching four VHS tapes to her chest and sobbing as she talked about her neighbors, the Allens.

Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen were killed when violent storms ripped through northern and eastern Kentucky around dusk Friday. Just one ridge over from the Allens' home another couple was killed, bringing the death toll to 19 in Kentucky and more than 35 across the nation.

"They were the best neighbors," Rhodes said. "You couldn't ask for no better."

Details slowly emerged Saturday morning as rescue workers began surveying the damage to areas hit Friday afternoon and evening. Small communities across Kentucky seemed to bear the brunt of the storm front, which spawned tornados from the Gulf Coast into Virginia and north to Indiana and Ohio.

Laurel County, 70 miles south of Lexington, where Rhodes and her neighbors were picking up the pieces, had five deaths reported by mid-morning. The tiny town of West Liberty, 93 miles east of Lexington, was rocked as well with five deaths.

The rest of the Kentucky deaths were spread over four other counties.

The neighborhood where four generations of the Rhodes family hid together from the storm in East Bernstadt was mostly wiped out. Several homes and vehicles were destroyed. Less than a mile away the same storm also killed Wilburn and Lizzie Pitman.

Rhodes said she and her husband, mother, daughter and grandchild hid from the storm in their basement.

"It was like, 'Whoo!' That was it," Rhodes said. "Honey, I felt the wind and I said, 'Oh, my God,' and then (the house) was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky."

No building was left untouched in West Liberty, a small eastern Kentucky farming town in the foothills of the Appalachians. Two white police cruisers had been picked up and tossed into city hall and few structures were recognizable.

Rev. Kenneth Jett, of West Liberty United Methodist Church, said he, his wife and three others fled to the church's basement to wait out the storm. They huddled in a small cubby hole and prayed while the storm destroyed the church overhead. They escaped with bumps and bruises in a town where five others were killed.

"We're thankful to God," Jett said. "It was a miracle that the five of us survived. We will come back, some way or another. One way or another, we will come back."

Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson were touring the hardest-hit areas of the state Saturday.

Beshear called up 275 Ky. National Guard troops to assist affected communities. He declared a statewide emergency Friday.


Associated Press writer Roger Alford contributed to this report from West Liberty, Ky.