Biden heads to tornado-struck Kentucky to pledge support

Mayfield (United States) (AFP) – US President Joe Biden headed Wednesday for Kentucky to pledge support and meet survivors after devastating tornadoes destroyed towns and took scores of lives.


Biden is due to visit Mayfield and Dawson Springs in the southeastern state -- two towns now synonymous with the damage wrought by last week's storms.

Seventy-five percent of Dawson Springs was destroyed, with emergency services working to remove debris as residents pick through the rubble of their homes hoping to salvage belongings.

More than 500 National Guard troops have been deployed to help with law enforcement, traffic control and recovery efforts, along with volunteers and associations on the ground to support victims.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the death toll from the powerful twisters that struck late Friday remained at 74, but he expected more victims to be found.

At least 14 other people died in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Biden plans to assess the damage and meet with disaster victims, the White House said.

On Sunday, he declared a major disaster in Kentucky, allowing additional federal aid to be channeled into recovery efforts, a move that earned thanks from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a rare courtesy amid deep party divisions in the country.

"I appreciate the Administration's quick work to speed resources to help deal with this crisis," McConnell, a Senator for Kentucky, wrote on Twitter.

'As long as it takes'

In a briefing on the crisis on Monday, Biden pledged Washington's support in the challenge of rebuilding ahead.

"We're going to be there as long as it takes to help," he said at the White House after the meeting dedicated to what he said was one of the country's worst tornado disasters.

Ashley McKnight searched through the rubble of her home destroyed by a tornado that struck Dawson Springs, Kentucky, on December 14, 2021
Ashley McKnight searched through the rubble of her home destroyed by a tornado that struck Dawson Springs, Kentucky, on December 14, 2021 Chandan KHANNA, CHANDAN KHANNA AFP

"This administration has made it clear to every governor: whatever they need, when they need it... we'll get it to them as rapidly as we can," he added.

While Biden said it was certain the tornadoes were "unusual," due in part to the length of their path and the number of places they touched down, he was careful to note that the link between the phenomenon and climate change still needed more investigation.

In contrast, in September, when he saw the devastation of Storm Ida in New York and New Jersey, he spoke of a climate "red alert," and touted his major investment projects that included efforts to mitigate climate change.

"We have to be very careful. We can't say with absolute certainty that it was because of climate change," Biden said of the tornadoes.

Politically speaking, in Kentucky, Biden is treading on unfriendly territory. While the state has a Democratic governor, it swung heavily to former Republican president Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

But the president, who has made empathy one of his trademarks, and who often praises Americans for standing together in difficult times, was careful before his departure not to politicize the visit.

"The president looks at people through the tragedy they're experiencing -- the heartache they're feeling at the loss of life, the loss of their homes," said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

"He looks at them as human beings, not as people who have partisan affiliations," she added.

"The message he's going to send to them directly and clearly... is: We're here to help, we want to rebuild, we are going to stand by your side, and we're going to help your leaders do exactly that."