Healing and rebuilding take time after Kentucky tornadoes rage

Evidence of cleanup and recovery is beginning to appear in the heart of this tornado-stricken city. Downtown streets are mostly passable, with bricks and rubble from broken buildings removed from some blocks. The site of the demolished candle factory that caught the nation’s sympathy is now vacant land.

Since the disaster six months ago, mountains of debris have been cleared across western Kentucky and millions of federal and Commonwealth dollars have been spent to help Kentucky survivors bounce back. The shaken communities of the Bluegrass State are only just beginning to regain their footing.

But the historic Mayfield Courthouse, its majestic clock tower broken from the facade and its interior damaged beyond repair, is a visible reminder of the tornadoes’ deadly destruction and the challenges as survivors heal and cities recover. rebuild.

The tornadoes struck with unexpected force the night of Dec. 10 and continued into the next day, hacking through nine states, including mostly rural Kentucky towns like Mayfield and Dawson Springs and the town of Bowling Green. Eighty-one lives were lost in western Kentucky, including 24 in Graves County, where Mayfield is the county seat.

City of Mayfield officials reported 257 structures destroyed, more than 1,000 others damaged.

Immediately after the tornadoes, local, Commonwealth and Federal disaster officials, non-profit organizations and volunteers began to step up. By daylight Governor Andy Beshear was visiting Mayfield, Dawson Springs and other damaged areas.

“It was beyond anything I had ever seen, with entire communities almost wiped off the map,” he said. “But I also witnessed acts of heroism, compassion and kindness that should make us all proud. The world has seen how Kentuckians come together, how we open our hearts and our homes to our fellow citizens in times of greatest need.

On December 11, advance teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency began arriving in response to the state’s request for federal assistance. The next day, President Biden issued a major disaster declaration releasing federal assistance under several programs for residents and communities in counties damaged by the tornado.

To ensure survivors knew how to apply, FEMA launched a multi-pronged awareness campaign. Disaster survivor assistance teams visited 11,000 homes between December 14 and March 9, helping with requests and answering questions. Teams contacted places of worship and community groups, asking them to pass on disaster information. FEMA’s messages were shared with elected officials and amplified by the media.

FEMA also set up disaster recovery centers in affected counties where survivors could get updates on their claims and submit their documents. The federal agency was prepared for survivors with disabilities or language barriers, which was especially important in Bowling Green, which is home to refugees and other immigrants speaking more than 100 languages. To communicate with them, FEMA offered language interpretation, allowing non-English-speaking survivors to get information in their native language.

A FEMA-funded disaster case management grant was approved in April, allowing individuals and families to work with case managers to access a wide range of resources. Case managers will also work with non-English speakers who still require translation assistance to continue the assistance process and receive eligible assistance.

Housing was an initial priority and remains a major challenge in Western Kentucky, a rural area that is already experiencing a housing shortage. Nevertheless, those responsible for the disaster were able to find temporary shelter for displaced survivors before Christmas. Commonwealth officials led the effort, providing cabins at state parks and finding available hotel rooms. They purchased 200 travel trailers as a temporary solution. Even six months later, FEMA and the state continue to search for additional longer-term temporary housing.

In an effort to make more housing available for disaster survivors, FEMA housing officials have agreed to increase the rental assistance rate to 125% of the US Department of Housing and Housing Fair Market Rent. urban development for eligible residents of Caldwell, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg and Warren counties. FEMA also began bringing in prefab housing for survivors who had no other options.

As of June 1, FEMA and the US Small Business Administration have provided nearly $82 million in federal disaster assistance to Kentucky. This figure includes $15.5 million in housing assistance and other disaster-related basic needs, $58.4 million in SBA low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and businesses, and 1 $.5 million to fund unemployment disaster relief.

Under FEMA’s Public Assistance program, communities receive assistance with the cost of repair, reconstruction, and emergency work, including reimbursements for debris removal, roads, and damaged infrastructure. For example, Marshall County received a $2.4 million reimbursement for debris removal and Bowling Green received a $1.5 million reimbursement for power restoration and repairs. As of June 1, the program had provided a total of $6.3 million in reimbursements, with more than 700 projects still under review.

FEMA also distributed information to help disaster-prone areas anticipate and fight for resilience. Risk mitigation teams visited home improvement stores, where they offered tornado survivors advice and tips on how to reduce future disaster risk when repairing and rebuilding their homes . Other mitigation teams visited schools, parks and resource fairs with a stormwater model designed to educate the public about the dangers of floodwaters and ways to reduce flood risk.

But help in Kentucky is not limited to restoring damaged buildings, cleaning up debris and learning about flood risks. Free crisis counseling has been available from the start to help survivors overcome the feelings of depression, sadness or anxiety so common after a disaster. The advisory service will continue until January 2023.

Federal Coordinating Officer Brett Howard, who leads the federal recovery operation, noted that FEMA is only one source of assistance. Disaster funding also comes from the state, local and federal partners, nonprofits, corporations, and private donors. Insurance funds are flowing to individuals and communities for reconstruction.

Funding from all sources means that federal and state agencies must coordinate to ensure they are not paying double for the same work. Howard said these priorities are facilitated by a strong partnership with state counterparts.

“The Commonwealth has really stepped up and taken care of its citizens,” Howard said. “I’ve never seen anything like this: funeral expenses, reconstruction…they work hard every day.”

And FEMA staff are working alongside them.

As communities across western Kentucky begin to plan their rebuilding strategy, their residents are forming long-term recovery committees to help survivors still in need. Other committees, including Mayfield Rebuilds, meet regularly to discuss their redevelopment ideas. FEMA’s Interagency Recovery Coordination Team, working with federal partners including HUD, SBA, Economic Development Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is helping identify resources for support recovery.

The mountain of work ahead begins with a single pebble, with every Kentuckian playing a small role and everyone acknowledging that it will take time to realize the new vision.

“We will continue to work until we rebuild every structure and every life,” Beshear promised.

Kentucky Emergency Management Director Jeremy Slinker added, “Together, we are committed to meeting the needs of everyone affected by the storms for as long as necessary.

Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan can see her beloved town coming back to life, but in a new form. She points to a park restored through private donations, where 23 cherry trees have been planted in memory of the town’s sons and daughters lost in the storm. It’s a small step, but no less inspiring for residents who need to plan for their future.

“It’s a healing process,” O’Nan said. “It’s devastating at first. Then you just try to hold on. And then you think, ‘Let’s get back to normal.’ But when you accept it, that’s when you start moving forward.

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