Kentucky to Use First Chunk of Money Donated for Tornado Victims to Pay for Funerals

As millions of dollars are raised for recovery from last week's tornadoes that tore through the Midwest and South through official state fundraisers and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear's office said the first funds to be used from the over $9 million raised so far will pay for funeral and burial costs for families of those who died in the storms.

At least 90 people are confirmed dead from the tornadoes, with Beshear's office saying that more than 100 people in Kentucky alone remain unaccounted for.

A University of Kentucky Athletics-hosted telethon raised over $3 million for the Red Cross, and several GoFundMe pages have raised tens of thousands for relief efforts with donations coming from across the country.

President Joe Biden visited some of the hardest-hit areas of Kentucky on Wednesday, pledging support from the federal government to aid recovery efforts for at least the first 30 days.

"Something good has to come out of this," Biden said. "In so many places, destruction was met with compassion."

Deaths have been reported in Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

Dozens of tornadoes were spotted in the region Friday night, as Mayfield, Kentucky, saw hundreds of buildings destroyed, and thousands of residents are still without water or power.

"I have seen devastation as bad from tornadoes, but I have never seen such widespread damage," Karen Smith, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief's feeding coordinator for Kentucky, told the Associated Press.

"It's kinda overwhelming because it's from one end of the state to the other," she said. "With that kind of damage, sometimes you just don't know where to start."

Kentucky, Mayfield, Tornado, Recovery
Volunteers, mostly from the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, help salvage possessions from the destroyed home of Martha Thomas, in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region several days earlier, in Mayfield, Kentucky, on Monday. Americans across the country are pitching in to help after last week’s tornadoes ravaged the South and Midwest, killing at least 90 people and displacing hundreds. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press File

Some remove broken tree limbs from the ground. Others prepare hot meals and shelters for those who have nowhere to turn. And many are collecting cash, toothpaste, soap, and other items for the countless who need them.

And volunteers, backed by national and local aid groups, are lending a hand in the hardest-hit areas.

Glenn Hickey, 67, is one of them. Hours after the tornado, the retired funeral director received a call from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team in Kentucky asking him to help with recovery efforts in Mayfield, which saw some of the worst damage.

Hickey, a regular volunteer with Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief, has gotten used to these calls and stays "packed up." So he kicked into high gear on Saturday and helped gather more volunteers. The next day, he drove four hours from his home in Monticello, Kentucky to Mayfield, where he and other volunteers have been removing tree branches from roads and driveways, and patching roofs that were damaged by the tornado.

More than 100 of them take time to rest and eat at the First Baptist Church in Murray, about 25 miles away from Mayfield. Barbecue, beans, pies and other meals are prepared for them at the church, and for first responders and storm victims in Mayfield, where there is currently no water or power.

Smith, 68, says she continues to do this work to help in whatever way she can. She is still recovering from COVID-19 herself, after contracting it in October of 2020. But she says she doesn't feel its ill effects when she's helping others.

"We want to give people hope," she said. "You look at all of that, and it feels hopeless. I think If they have hope, then they can begin to heal."

More Southern Baptist volunteers are slated to arrive in Kentucky this week. The American Red Cross, churches and other charities have also mobilized to set up shelters, and distribute meals, water and snacks in the affected areas. But some are choosing to help on their own.

Jim Finch, of Clarksville, Tennessee, went viral on social media this week after he hauled his meat smoker to Mayfield to cook for residents.

Elsewhere, Abbigayle Rawls, a medical student at the University of Kentucky's campus in hard-hit Bowling Green, has collected more than $130,000 through a GoFundMe fundraiser.

Not long after the emergency alerts blared on her phone and she emerged from taking shelter, Rawls says she and her fellow students realized the urgent need for help for people in the affected towns. Rawls herself was spared, but she said her grandmother was staying with her because her home across town lost power.

"Things on the ground are pretty bad, and we're going to need some help and it's going to take a while to rebuild," she recalled saying to colleagues. Someone in her class suggested they find a way to help, which led them to launch the fundraiser.

Experts say Americans should practice caution when donating through crowdfunding sites since private fundraising organizers aren't required to disclose how they spend the money.

Donations for Rawls' appeal have come in as far away as the United Kingdom and Canada. The effort is entirely student run, but the university administration signed off on the medical students using the college's name in the post.

"It's been incredible to just watch the entire world come together and just help out," Rawls said.

Requests for supplies are coming into her inbox about two to three times an hour, she estimated, and supplies have already gone out to people. Rawls' peers, for example, cleared as much wound care and bandages from a store's shelves as they could when a request for those items came in from Dawson Springs, Kentucky, another devastated town. Someone drove the supplies out to people who needed them, she said.

As for the bulk of the money, Rawls said she and her peers are putting a group together to determine how to best use it to help people in the long run.

In Missouri, Randi McCallian, 35, is collecting essential items, such as wipes, trash bags, soap, and pet food she can deliver to Hayti, a city that saw some damage about 200 miles away from her home in Newburg. The stay-at-home mom, who moved to Missouri with political aspirations after a failed bid for the Colorado state Senate last year, said four people have given her $190 to get more stuff.

Kevin Cotton, the mayor of Madisonville, Kentucky, said that while donated supplies are great, it's overwhelming to a small area to find a place to temporarily store them. Most of his town went unscathed by the tornado, but nearby Dawson Springs was hit hard, so he pitched in to help.

"What we need the most right now is a lot of prayer for this community," Cotton said. "We have a lot of volunteers. We have a lot of supplies that are coming in. We have donations from all over the country. The big thing that we need is for people to be patient with us."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kentucky, Mayfield, Tornado, Recovery, Andy Beshear
Heavy damage is seen downtown after a tornado swept through the area on Saturday in Mayfield, Kentucky. Governor Andy Beshear said the first funds from the state's $9 million fundraiser will go toward paying for funerals of those who died in the storms. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images