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How Do You Rebuild Your City When the Downtown's All Gone?

Mayfield was devastated last December when a tornado ripped through Western Kentucky. New homes are starting to spring up, though, and the city's got big plans for reshaping itself.

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(David Kidd/Governing)
Like a lot of people, Doug Sims has been working from home. In his case, it's because his office was destroyed. Some of his coworkers are working in a trailer. Despite these less than ideal conditions, Sims says he’s handled $200 million worth of transactions — “at least” — since the start of the year.

Sims is an agent at Western Kentucky Insurance, and he’s been busy handling claims in his hometown of Mayfield. On Dec. 10, a deadly tornado wiped out most of the downtown and hundreds of homes. Almost half of the town’s 4,000 buildings suffered some sort of damage, with 257 totally destroyed and 378 enduring major destruction. The Victorian-era Graves County Courthouse at the center of town lost its clock tower and most of its roof. In Graves County, a total of 24 people lost their lives.

Most of the streets in downtown Mayfield remain cut off to traffic by orange pylons, creating an eerie atmosphere. Inside one storefront, a smoke detector screams, fruitlessly demanding fresh batteries. A utility box across from the wrecked City Hall is embellished with Christmas stickers that depict a gingerbread man, snowman and a reindeer. Whatever their colors originally were, they’ve faded to a pale blue.
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"The human spirit is shining really brightly in Mayfield, Ky.," says Doug Sims.
(David Kidd)
Everyone in town can recall in perfect detail their experiences of the night the storm passed through, where they were and who they were with and how they made it through. Driving a few blocks west of his makeshift office, Sims catalogs the damage, pointing out the candle factory, the sign company, the day-care center, the school bus depot, the car dealership and the indoor soccer facility that were all blown away. “There was a church right over there where that pile of rubble is,” he says. “In this neighborhood, I bet there are 50 houses that are gone.”

But Mayfield is not a ghost town. Nearly half a year later, residents are ready to look forward, not back. This week, a barbecue place called The Barn will reopen on West Broadway, the main drag, in a brand-new building. “One of our best local restaurants is going to be tripling in size,” Sims says. “I can tell you that everyone who can build anything is busy doing something.”

Scattered houses are starting to pop up, built by both volunteer groups and developers. “We’re just at the foothills of construction getting started, but I don’t think anybody’s waiting on anybody,” says Mayor Kathy O’Nan. “When I come to work, I love to see the silhouettes of men up there working on the roofs. And that’s every day.”
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Workers prepare to reopen The Barn, a popular downtown restaurant.
(David Kidd)
Gov. Andy Beshear was just in town, armed with $16 million in aid to build 300 homes and $20 million for the city government itself. Within weeks of the storm, the state approved a $200 million package to prevent Mayfield and other local governments and utilities from going bankrupt. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, hails from Kentucky and managed to squeeze extra millions from both FEMA and HUD.

Mayfield’s no longer seeing the flood of volunteers that came in right after the storm, but the city’s still getting lots of help. Samaritan’s Purse, the international humanitarian aid group, has made a multiyear commitment to stay. Major donations have arrived from law firms from out of state and fast-food franchisers outside the county to rebuild parks and homes.

“It has been amazing,” O’Nan says. “If you’re going to have a disaster, have a bad one, because they get all the attention.”

A Deadly Path

It was freakishly warm on Dec. 10. Dozens of tornadoes touched down across nine states that night, destroying thousands of buildings and killing 89 people. In Edwardsville, Ill., about 150 miles north of Mayfield, six people died when an Amazon warehouse collapsed.

The tornado that struck Mayfield bore winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and stayed on the ground for 165 miles, one of the longest paths ever recorded. About 60 miles east, 14 people died in Dawson Springs, the hometown of the governor’s father and grandfather. A cousin and his wife were among the dead. “One block from my grandparents', there is no house standing,” Gov. Beshear tweeted. “It's heartbreaking.”

Continuing its deadly path, the storm killed 11 people in the town of Bremen, which had a population of 172 at the time of the 2020 census. Jordan Baize’s home was struck dead center. Checking the wreckage the next day, Baize sat down at his piano and played a hymn. His sister recorded him and the video went viral. This led to Baize making appearances on national TV shows and delivering countless testimonials in churches.
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Rather than trying to rebuild, Jordan Baize is buying a house from his parents.
(David Kidd)
Five months later, the weeds around Baize’s house have already grown thigh high. The house is like a bizarre, open-air showroom. The roof’s gone, but the kitchen island’s intact, the microwave’s mounted and the backsplash looks untouched. A mixmaster and a toaster are still plugged in. “Dude, it ripped the front wall off my house and left the spices on the spice rack,” Baize says. “I don’t understand it.”

Baize’s brush with celebrity has helped him raise $70,000, which he intends to use to build community storm shelters. Just past his property line, a group of volunteers from a Bible church in Ohio are putting up a house under the auspices of a Virginia-based charity known as God’s Pit Crew. Five days after they started, the frame is up and they’re screwing in planks to construct the porch. “Some of them are carpenters,” says Tom Moro, a volunteer down from Akron, “and the rest of us just do what we’re told.”

People Growing Impatient

Along Water Street in Mayfield, a dozen teenagers from a Jewish high school in Brooklyn are working to clear a home site. “The human spirit is shining really brightly in Mayfield, Ky.,” Sims says as he drives by.

A few blocks away, a group of Amish volunteers from Indiana are putting some finishing touches on a home, part of a project known as Homes & Hope that’s set a goal of building 50 to 60 houses. Groups of about two-dozen volunteers come in for a week at a time, says Jordan Stettler, a beef farmer working on the project. “Right after a storm, everyone wants to help,” he says. “Now, people still want to help, but it’s slacked off.”
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Young volunteers from Brooklyn have come to help with clean up.
(David Kidd)
Like other disaster sites, Mayfield was overwhelmed with donations at first — more food than could be eaten, more toys than they could give away. An entire building was filled with donated animal food. Now, Mayor O’Nan says there’s more of a coordinated effort, with a central committee working to coordinate volunteers.

Committees have sprung up like wildflowers around the town. There are rebuilding committees and task forces, the city soliciting suggestions from residents about how they’d like to rebuild. Work is just starting on a master plan to rethink Mayfield and its design. “They’ve hired a national firm and a local firm to look at Mayfield to evaluate it, to make some decisions on do we go back exactly the way it was, or now that we have a clean slate do we make some modifications,” says Richard Heath, who represents Mayfield in the Kentucky House.

The wrecked courthouse was home to both county administrative offices and the jail. Those might be split up. Some one-way streets may be eliminated and some blocks might be taken out altogether, in order to make others wider. All of this is barely a work in progress, but it’s easy enough to find people around town who are unhappy about any and all potential land-use decisions.
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An out-of-state Amish group is building several homes in Mayfield.
(David Kidd)
“I understand people being impatient — I’ve been impatient myself,” says Howel Carr, the county tax assessor. “They’ve never experienced it before and it’s a learning experience for everybody.”

Moving On

Not only the courthouse but Mayfield’s City Hall, a fire station, a police station and the water and power company were all wiped out. Heath remembers shopping for school clothes at the stores that surrounded the courthouse square when he was a kid. Now, he carries around a 19th-century hand-cut nail he picked up from the ruins of the courthouse the day after the storm.

“Reality has set in,” he says. “It’s here, and we have to deal with it.”

Despite the blow to civic infrastructure, city and county services have not missed a day. After setting up shop initially in a parking lot, city and county offices have moved temporarily out to Paris Road, Mayfield’s strip mall and fast-food area, left largely untouched by the storm. O’Nan’s office is next to a Verizon store, while the county offices are between Farmers Home Furniture and H&R Block.
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Hundreds of homes in Mayfield were damaged or destroyed by the storm.
(David Kidd)
A surprising number of businesses in a town of 10,000 had more than one location and have been able to keep operating despite the damage. For others, rebuilding has been slow. People in Mayfield, like survivors of other disasters, complain about the paperwork involved in trying to get money out of FEMA. On the other hand, there have been plenty of fraudulent claims, as happens with all disasters.

There seem to be fewer complaints about private insurance, but many people were only insured for fixed amounts, not the total cost of replacement and rebuilding. Those have shot up markedly, given inflation, supply chain problems and a shortage of contractors. Some haven’t collected enough to make it worthwhile to pay for clearing away the debris. The owner of a former hotel, the most prominent building left relatively intact downtown, sold it for $1, rather than spend $700,000 to take it down. There are some older people who took their insurance checks and decided to move on, rather than spend the time it takes to rebuild.

Anyone who has ever dealt with a contractor understands that construction inevitably takes longer than you’d hoped at the outset. “We've had a wet spring, so it's been tough to get footers dug and blocks laid and plumbing in and concrete slabs poured,” says Heath, who owns a building company. “The weather's just now where we can actually start doing some of that.”

Rain delayed construction on the third house that Bryce Steward is helping his father build along Fifth Street, just north of the courthouse square. Once it let up, it only took a few days for them to put up trusses and a roof. They plan to build several more homes. “Actually, since the storm, a lot has happened,” Steward says.
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Delayed by spring rains, new houses are under construction on land still littered with storm debris.
(David Kidd)
They’re building on lots Steward’s dad bought all around his grandfather’s house. Lots of adults in town know each other from school days; their parents or grandparents may have attended the same schools. Sims, the insurance agent, has a plaque someone managed to salvage from the ruined First United Methodist Church, highlighting that a basement classroom had been dedicated to his grandfather more than a quarter-century ago.

It's those kind of deep roots that make the mayor and other local officials optimistic that most residents will remain. O’Nan says she’s heard people say they didn’t realize how much they loved the town until it was almost gone. “I love seeing the excitement of people younger than I am — much younger than I am— about rebuilding this town.”
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(David Kidd)
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized aspects of Doug Sims' business.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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