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How children who survived Kentucky's deadly tornadoes are coping with the aftermath

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden traveled to Kentucky yesterday to see the catastrophic damage from the tornadoes. He met with first responders and families.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You know, the scope and scale of this destruction is almost beyond belief. When you look around here, it's just almost beyond belief. These tornadoes devoured everything in their path.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann was in Dawson Springs, Ky., when the president visited. Brian, what commitments did the president make?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, first, A, he promised more aid for Kentucky, promising that the federal government would pay 100% of the initial cost of the cleanup in these communities through the first 30 days. So that's a boost for the response. And he also spoke about the terrible uncertainty that people here are facing.

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BIDEN: I met one couple on the way up, said they're still looking for four of their friends. They don't know where they are. And those who have lost someone, there's no words for the pain of losing someone. A lot of us know it. A lot of us understand it, especially around the holidays, when everything is supposed to be happy and joyful.

MANN: More than a hundred people here in Kentucky are still unaccounted for. I should say, there is hope some of those people will eventually turn up. There's so much confusion here. But search and recovery efforts continue. And they continued even while the president was on the ground.

MARTINEZ: Now, we're going to start talking about something that's going to be really difficult to listen to, something that kids might not be appropriate for. Seventy-four people are confirmed dead. And, Brian, at least 12 of those lost their children.

MANN: That's right. This storm hit young people very, very hard. The Associated Press is reporting that on one single street in Bowling Green, Ky., seven children died, so it's just shattering.

MARTINEZ: You and our colleague David Schaper were - have been talking to kids about what they experienced during this storm and in the aftermath. What did you hear from them?

MANN: Well, these tornadoes caught these kids in the middle of the night in the place where they're supposed to feel safest, you know, in their homes, in their bedrooms. So for many of them, it was really just terrifying. This is Addison Heppner (ph) from Princeton, Ky. He's 14.

ADDISON HEPPNER: You could just hear the house shaking. And, like, drywall, like, fragments were falling down from the roof of the basement. The wind just came through the house. It was very scary. There's not really words that you can put to say about it.

MARTINEZ: I met Addison outside a hotel where his family is sheltering. Their home is severely damaged now and has no power. He said it's tough seeing his community torn apart, so he's been spending a lot of his days working with his parents.

HEPPNER: Going back to the neighborhood, it's just - you have the urge to clean up as soon as you get there. And that's what most of us have been doing there.

MANN: But one of the things we found is a lot of these kids who went through that terrifying night, they're too young to really understand what happened and what's happening now. They talked about hiding in closets with their dogs or huddling down in basements. Alayah Pacheco (ph) is 8 years old. And she was with her grandmother, Beatriz Valero (ph), in Mayfield when the wind tore their house apart.

BEATRIZ VALERO: And we had to lay down on the floor.

ALAYAH PACHECO: We were by the door.

VALERO: Yeah.

PACHECO: And then we had to go in the bathroom until we noticed that the roof had came off. It just sucked everything up.

MANN: Damage in Mayfield is just incredibly widespread, whole neighborhoods flattened. And it was heartbreaking to hear how that looked through Alayah's eyes.

PACHECO: There's not a lot of people here no more.

VALERO: No, no more. Yep.

PACHECO: There's usually a lot of people walking.

MANN: On this day, they were searching the ruins of their home for what they could salvage. And Alayah told us she couldn't find any of their Christmas things.

PACHECO: Yeah. The Christmas tree, I think, got sucked up with the presents.

VALERO: We don't have no more Christmas, right?

PACHECO: Yeah. They're either in the pile or got sucked up.

MANN: The pile is how Alayah describes what's left of their home. They're living now temporarily with family. But they don't have insurance, so rebuilding is going to be hard. One thing I've seen in these towns after the storm is that there are just kids sort of hanging around. There's no school. A lot of them are living in shelters. Another town that was slammed by the tornado is Dawson Springs. And that's where I met Taylor Paris, who's 15. He was volunteering for his church, helping to hand out supplies. And he said the storm hit fast and was overwhelming.

TAYLOR PARIS: Loud rumbling, everything was shaking. But after the storm, the town - in less than 10 minutes, everybody was out of their houses. Everybody was checking on each other. I've never seen anything like it.

MANN: Taylor said he's really proud of how his community has responded, how people have been volunteering and helping each other. But he also reminded me this disaster comes at a time when these kids' lives were already turned upside down by the pandemic. And now there's this tornado.

PARIS: All I've heard is we're not going back to school for the rest of the year because it's just a makeshift hospital and headquarters right now. It's going to put a lot of kids behind. Since COVID happened, it's going to just delay everything even more.

MANN: And of course, school is where a lot of these kids might get counseling or support after a trauma like this. But right now, getting that kind of help is a lot more difficult if it's available at all. Olivia Darrow (ph), who's 11, was also working at the church, handing out relief supplies. She rode out the storm in her grandmother's house.

OLIVIA DARROW: It was very frightening. Half of the roof is gone. Some of the roof is collapsing in. Most of this stuff is gone. A bunch of stuff is broken.

MANN: Olivia said she's worried about Dawson Springs and what will happen next to their community.

DARROW: It honestly makes me really sad because I've never moved from here. And I've always grown up here.

MANN: And, you know, A, one of the many things people in Dawson Springs are afraid of now - I heard this from grown-ups and kids - is that after this disaster, if a lot of people move away, they won't be able to keep their beloved public school, which is kind of the center of the community and one of the town's biggest employers.

MARTINEZ: And, Brian, listening to Alayah Pacheco, the little girl in Mayfield who talked about losing her Christmas presents, I mean, that's just heartbreaking.

MANN: Yeah. We're nine days away from Christmas. One thing that is happening in Kentucky right now, a whole bunch of toy drives, efforts to gather donations so these kids do get some Christmas. During President Biden's visit yesterday, he introduced Britainy Beshear, Kentucky's first lady, who's leading the largest of those efforts.

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BRITAINY BESHEAR: As of this morning, we think that we have around 20,000 gifts donated. And we've got three more days to go.

BIDEN: Twenty thousand gifts. No kid is going to go to sleep - wherever they get to sleep tonight - without a gift. God love you.

MANN: So there really is a big push to wrap arms around these kids and give them some love and comfort. But it's going to be a rough holiday season for thousands of these families.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Brian Mann in Western Kentucky with reporting help from David Schaper. Brian, thanks a lot.

MANN: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "ASUNDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.