There are still mounds of shattered wood and other debris piled up along the streets of several towns in Kentucky hit by tornadoes nearly a month ago, but they are still digging and businesses are reopening.
In Bowling Green, for example, the Beverly Hills Bargain Boutique resumed operations on Jan.4 after being closed for more than three weeks while power was restored.
The clothing store on the 31W bypass had a blue plastic trap covering roof damage, but also a constant stream of customers.
It’s sort of a metaphor for recovery from the deadliest tornado night in Kentucky history.
âI see a little improvement every day,â said store owner John Horner.
Still, no one doubts that it will take a long time for a full recovery. How long is uncertain, and there is some concern that some places will not make all the way back.
A series of tornadoes that struck Kentucky on December 10 and 11 damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and killed at least 77 people.
The most extensive damage occurred in Graves County, where a candle factory collapsed on workers in Mayfield; Warren County, where most of the deaths occurred on a street in Bowling Green; and Dawson Springs and Bremen.
Tornadoes have, however, been confirmed in several other counties, including Boyle, Madison and Hardin, according to the National Weather Service.
The weather service counted a total of 20 tornadoes in the outbreak.
A month later, the cleaning and reconstruction work is still in its infancy.
There is a mind-numbing amount of work for residents and government officials – dealing with federal, nonprofit, and religious aid organizations, filing requests for help, coordinating volunteers, arranging the removal of thousands of tons. debris, search for equipment and find housing for displaced people in cities where the rental market was tight even before hundreds of houses and apartments were destroyed.
“It has been the most difficult and stressful three weeks of my life,” Hopkins County Executive Judge Jack Whitfield Jr. said last week.
Whitfield said that just after the storm hit his county killing 17 people, an executive judge from a neighboring county walked with him and answered his phones because he was getting so many calls.
The storm destroyed or irreparably damaged 302 homes and businesses in the county, and had at least some impact on a total of 900 structures, Whitfield said.
Whitfield said this left at least 780,000 cubic meters of debris to clean up. This volume of mulch would weigh almost 200,000 tons.
Removing this debris must be a priority to make room for reconstruction, officials from several counties have said, and they are working on it.
As of Jan. 6, for example, 83,952 cubic meters of debris had been washed away in Bowling Green and another 17,539 in the county, said Travis Puckett, deputy county emergency manager.
âI think we are making substantial progress,â he said.
Local officials in the tornado-affected region said the work of volunteers, the American Red Cross, federal agencies, faith groups and businesses have been invaluable in dealing with tornadoes.
Some people would not have had the financial or physical capacity to clean up the debris from their home site and pile it up for pickup without the help of volunteers, for example, the Warren County Executive Judge said, Mike Buchanon.
Another key immediate need is housing.
Housing was already tight in Bowling green and Warren County due to rapid growth in recent years, and the tornadoes have destroyed 500 homes and apartments and damaged 500 more so badly it will take months to repair them, Buchanon said.
The sheer volume of work will cause delays in getting contractors to repair houses and apartments.
âYou can’t get a contractor right now,â Buchanon said.
Local authorities estimate that at least 5,000 residents of Bowling Green have been displaced. They live with family, friends or in motels, but some have had to travel to Tennessee or Indiana to find accommodation, Buchanon said.
Several local officials said discussions were underway on how to provide long-term temporary housing to those displaced by the tornadoes.
One possibility would be to hook up trailers or RVs to utilities at sites where people lived or in nearby developments, helping to preserve those neighborhoods during reconstruction, officials said.
âIf we could get them closer to where they were it would be better,â said Whitfield.
Chasity Coleman lost everything when a tornado destroyed the Bowling Green home she shared with her 5-year-old son. They stayed with her mother and in a motel for over three weeks as she searched for new accommodation to rent.
Several times she has seen locations advertised online, but when she called they were already taken, Coleman said.
She finally found a townhouse – for $ 200 a month more than her old rent – a few days ago.
âIt’s so difficult here because everyone is looking for a place at the same time,â said Coleman, a hairstylist.
Coleman said she was grateful that she and her son were not injured, as so many people were injured or killed. For her, not having permanent housing was the most difficult thing in the aftermath of the tornadoes.
âBeing homeless and having to start all over again. . . it’s crazy, âshe said. âWe’re just trying to move and put the pieces back together. “
Three tornadoes hit Bowling Green early on December 11, including one that destroyed dozens of businesses along the busy 31W bypass, a key business district in the city.
Seventeen people died and at least 84 were injured. There were likely other injuries that weren’t reported to authorities, Puckett said.
Two local hospitals ran out of blood, Buchanon said.
Some other places affected by the tornadoes lacked housing because they weren’t growing, so builders weren’t building many new houses or apartments.
Whitfield said Hopkins County and Dawson Springs lost population between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. He fears that without a quick housing solution more people will leave.
“I am worried about this,” he said.
Bill Patterson, 69, said he had caught himself on several occasions in recent weeks driving to the house where he and his wife Barbara, 68, had lived for almost 40 years before it was not destroyed by the massive tornado that struck Mayfield on December 10th.
They were still staying at a motel last week last week. Trying to get back to a sense of normalcy has been difficult, he said.
âI don’t have a house to go to. It’s not easy, âhe said.
But Patterson said he and his wife wanted to rebuild on the site of their old home.
There is still a great need for assistance in communities affected by tornadoes. One way to do this is through the Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund Team.
In Graves County, the Mayfield Community Foundation used the donations to meet a range of needs, including gas for generators for people without electricity, utility and hotel bills, mattresses, heaters and car windshields.
âPeople are absolutely trying to survive,â said Steven Elder, director of the foundation. âEvery day is the same. You wake up and the devastation is still there.
The foundation decided last week to buy a limited number of cars so people can get to work.
A month later, the picture of the reopening of companies is mixed.
The tornado destroyed much of the building occupied by EZ Rent It in Bowling Green, but it resumed operations days after the telephone company was able to switch its two lines to the manager’s cell phone.
The storefront is still in tatters, but employees Layke Taylor and Logan Selvidge were there last week, working in what had been a storage area where the roof was moved by the tornado but was still nearly intact.
It could take months to rebuild the rest, owner Tommy Loving said.
âThere is a lot to do but we are coming back,â said Loving.
However, several nearby businesses were still closed, including two restaurants and a tire store, and what was once a vape shop next door is a pile of rubble.
In Dawson Springs, Becky James and two of her children lost their home to the storm and lives in an RV, but reopened her popular home cooking restaurant, Ms. Becky’s Place, on January 3.
James said 75 percent of the city was destroyed, but the restaurant survived with some damage.
Opening the doors is a step towards getting back to normalcy, she said.
âThings are getting better,â James said.
Bowling Green Mayor Todd Alcott said he was grateful for the outpouring of support his community and others saw, and proud of the local response to the disaster. The resilience of the community has been tested and proven, he said.
“We’re going to get better with it,” Alcott promised.
This story was originally published January 7, 2022 12:17 pm.