Tornado devastation: FEMA in 'life-saving, sustaining' mode combing for survivors

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell traveling to Kentucky, which has the highest expected death toll

FEMA remains in "life-saving and life-sustaining mode" as of Sunday, as search and rescue teams scour the debris left by a deadly tornado outbreak that swept across six states in the Midwest and South, with Kentucky bearing the brunt of the damage and devastation.  

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, offered prayers following the "record-breaking tragedy that has left so many families displaced." 

"What we are hearing is we are still in the life-saving and life-sustaining mode," Criswell said during an appearance on ABC’s "This Week." "We're still in search and rescue and we're sending additional resources in to help locate anybody who still may  be trapped." 


Criswell told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the next two days will focus on finding those trapped beneath the rubble before the agency pivots to a "long recovery" process in addressing communities’ immediate need for shelter, then longer term housing and finally rebuilding. 

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell speaks during a briefing by local leaders on the impact of the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida at Somerset County Emergency Management Training Center in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, U.S., September 7, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz 

The administrator, who is traveling to the region with Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas, said she couldn’t speak as to whether President Biden plans to visit the region. 

Kentucky is the only state so far that has asked for and received an emergency declaration, Criswell said, though regional administrators in the other states are still assessing the impact and additional request for federal resources. So far, FEMA has approximately 100 personnel on the ground and has sent its National Urban Search and Rescue team and National Incident Management Assistance teams to help coordinate all the federal resources coming in. 

Additional staging teams are bringing in generators and commodities, as Criswell describes shelter as being the "huge issue" right now during an extreme weather event that happened during the winter and as Christmas is fast approaching. When prompted by Stephanopoulos, Criswell also spoke to the greater frequency of extreme weather events across the country. 


Bowling Green, Kentucky, residents look at the damage following a tornado that struck the area

Bowling Green, Kentucky, residents look at the damage following a tornado that struck the area on December 11, 2021. - Tornadoes ripped through five US states overnight, leaving more than 70 people dead Saturday in Kentucky and causing multiple fatalities ((GUNNAR WORD/Getty Images))

"I think that there is a lot that we need to do as a nation. You know, there's going to be a lot to learn from this event and the events that we saw through the summer," Criswell said. "We're seeing more intense storms, severe weather, whether it's hurricanes, tornadoes, wild fires. And one of the focuses my agency is going to have is, how can we start to reduce the impacts of these events as they continue to grow? 

She added: "We're having a concerted effort going forward in how we can help communities understand what their unique risks are, the type of mitigation projects that are out there that can help protect them community-wide instead of incremental projects. And really help communities become more resilient to these severe weather events that continue to happen."

A car sits under a house destroyed by a tornado in Campbellsville, Ky

A car sits under a house destroyed by a tornado in Campbellsville, Ky., Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across multiple states late Friday. 

As the death toll continues to climb Sunday, Kentucky has seen the largest number of people killed, as employees working overnight at a candle factory struck by a tornado were trapped beneath the rubble. Tornadoes also turned deadly at an Illinois Amazon facility and an Arkansas nursing home. 


Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear fears more than 80 are dead in his state alone. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.