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1 year after devastating tornadoes, Western Kentucky continues to rebuild

(MAYFIELD, Ky.) — In the days and weeks leading up to this weekend — which marks one year since a devastating tornado outbreak tore through Kentucky — Mayfield pastor Al Chandler has sensed anxiety among residents in the region.

“It was a whirlwind for several days there and weeks,” Chandler, a pastor at Northside Baptist Church, told ABC News. “Everybody was impacted one way or the other.”

On Dec. 10 and 11 of last year, multiple states in the Midwest and South were struck by a series of intense tornadoes, including a massive EF-4 tornado that traveled some 165 miles in Kentucky alone.

Once state officials were able to fully assess the damage, it was determined that at least 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 76 people were killed in hard-hit Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has said.

Memorials and vigils will be held throughout the state this weekend to remember and honor those killed as communities continue to heal from the trauma and devastation of the tornadoes.

“Now that Dec. 10 is creeping up on us, I get afraid. I can’t help but get afraid and I get stressed,” Deloris Williams, whose Dawson Springs home was one of many destroyed in the city, told ABC Louisville affiliate WHAS. “I think, ‘Please God, don’t let this happen again. Please don’t."”

Kentucky native Misty Thomas recalled waking up on Dec. 11, 2021, to what was unprecedented devastation for most Kentuckians.

“We weren’t prepared for the reality of the possibility of an EF-4 tornado, period,” Thomas, the executive director for the American Red Cross Western Kentucky Chapter, told ABC News. “I think my mindset that night was, we will have some tree limbs down, we’ll have some power outages.”

“It took our breath — of what that storm, what Mother Nature was capable of,” she said.

The past year has been one of rebuilding and repairing. And while much progress has been made, many people are still waiting for a permanent place to call home.

As chair of the Mayfield Graves County Long Term Recovery Group, which partners with dozens of nonprofit organizations, Chandler has been involved in the efforts to provide free assistance to survivors in the weeks and months after the tornadoes. That could mean anything from food and power needs to helping file FEMA claims for damaged homes and cars.

Chandler said the group has closed some 155 cases since it was founded in the weeks after the tornado, though still has nearly 170 open cases and more than 250 that are awaiting case management.

A year after the tornado, one of the biggest concerns remains housing, he said. Upwards of 800 homes in the area were hit, with renters in particular impacted, he said.

“We determined that about 70% of our survivors were in rental units,” Chandler said, which presents a “unique gap” for the community’s recovery to help keep people in the area. “There are very few resources available for [renters].”

Through state and federal assistance, some people have been housed in campers and trailers while waiting for more permanent housing, and the humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse has built 60 new homes, said Chandler. He estimates nearly 200 people are still in need of permanent housing, while currently living in campers, hotels or with family.

To help survivors find a pathway to homeownership, the long-term recovery group launched what it’s dubbed the Home for the Holidays program — wherein it acquires homes in the community to rent to families for a year, at which point the renters will have the chance to purchase the home. The group has 13 people under contract right now, he said, with the goal to find 25 families homes by Dec. 25.

“That’s one of our creative ways to help meet some needs for our renters and get them into a home quickly,” he said.

Even those who do find a new place to live may have difficulty calling it home. After Williams lost everything when the tornado leveled her Dawson Springs home, she eventually ended up moving some 25 miles away to Hopkinsville to find an affordable apartment.

“I truly believe if it wasn’t for my cousin that helped me because he works at an apartment complex, I still would not have a place to call home,” she told WHAS. “Even though I’ve found an apartment with the help of my cousin, which I am truly grateful for, you don’t feel like you’re at home.”

‘Herculean’ recovery work

There are nine long-term recovery groups like the one Chandler chairs that are located in the Western Kentucky chapter of the Red Cross, Thomas said. Most of the volunteer-run groups sprung up in the wake of the December tornadoes to help with what will likely be a years-long recovery effort, she said.

“This is going to be such a long process because of the amount of homes destroyed, and the people who were displaced,” she said. “I would say, a year into this, there’s still a lot to do, but there’s been a lot accomplished.”

Thomas said she was impressed with the “creativity and ingenuity” of the long-term recovery groups as they step up and work to restore their communities, pointing to programs like Home for the Holidays.

“I’m really impressed with the people who’ve banded together, continue to be resilient and persevere for the good of the survivors,” she said. “There’s so many people working on behalf of survivors that it’s very heartwarming to watch this happen in real-time.”

Once the groups help those recovering from the disaster, they will likely pivot to community preparedness — to be ready if and when the next disaster strikes, Thomas said. Though for now, they’re still very much in the recovery phase.

“It’s just been incredible to get to know these people after this disaster, in these communities, doing such herculean work for the people they love,” she said. “It just reminds me, there’s so much good out there.”

Chandler has been thankful for the volunteers who continue to come from all over to help rebuild Mayfield, which in addition to residents has seen scores of businesses displaced.

“It’s a whole new town right now, in the sense that we’re all temporarily dislocated,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of good things happen, but there’s still a lot more to do.”

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