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‘God’s Got a New Plan’: Kentucky Towns Begin Recovery After Deadly Tornadoes

Most of downtown Mayfield was destroyed and dozens of residential blocks have been wiped out. “War zones don’t look this bad,” Gov. Beshear said, but residents were optimistic about rebuilding.

One of many houses in Mayfield, Ky., that were destroyed by the tornado that swept through on the evening of December 10, 2021. (All photos: Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Wes Fowler thought he’d be safe in church. With a tornado bearing down Friday night, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Mayfield, Ky., brought his wife and their three sons over to the church for shelter. As things turned out, they would have been better off staying at home.

“We were in the basement, so we thought we’d be 100 percent safe,” Fowler says. “But the ceiling tiles in the basement started going up and down, shaking violently, the room filling with debris and dust. We weren’t sure we were going to make it.”

The church’s sanctuary was already being remodeled. Fowler has been holding services in the gym but now it’s filled with insulation and torn sheet metal, sunlight pouring through where the roof used to be. With winds topping 200 miles per hour, First Baptist was one of several Mayfield churches damaged by the storm. First Presbyterian, First Christian and First Methodist were all destroyed.

“God’s got a new plan for our church and hopefully even Mayfield,” says Mason Waldridge, a parishioner at nearby Yahweh Baptist Church. “The building itself, we can’t rebuild it. The back wall’s out and the roof’s off of it.”
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Wes Fowler, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Mayfield, surveys the damage to his facility.
The father of one Yahweh family spent hours trapped in the debris of his ruined house. His pregnant wife and their children got out, but she suffered a back injury and lost her baby. One boy had to be airlifted to another hospital, while the other two suffered broken bones and bruises.

The town was dead in the path of a tornado that ripped across more than 200 miles, pushing debris more than 30,000 feet in the air – the worst of 30 twisters that struck across six states on Friday.

Most of Mayfield’s downtown has been reduced to rubble. The clock tower and much of the second floor of the Graves County Courthouse, built in 1888, were blown away. Across West Broadway, the heavily-damaged police department was boarded up on Saturday.

Residents who survived felt grateful to be alive, no matter their other losses. It’s typical in the immediate wake of a disaster for people to feel nothing but shock and relief. The difficulties they face may hit them harder in the weeks and months to come.

Two miles from the courthouse square, 70 people working at a candle factory are missing or dead. Gov. Andy Beshear, fighting back tears as he inspected the site on Saturday, said it was the most devastating tornado event in the state’s history. “You can say it’s a war zone, but war zones don’t look this bad,” Beshear said while touring Dawson Springs, 75 miles northwest of Mayfield.

Just hours after the storm, residents and volunteers were filling up dumpsters around Mayfield. At First Baptist, about a dozen congregants and contractors were salvaging equipment and boarding up window frames, securing the structure ahead of its assessment and rebuilding.

For the churches, along with the town itself, it’s the people who matter, no matter how bad the wreckage. “We always teach that this is not the church, that this is the building the church comes to,” Fowler says. “Now we’re going to have to put that in practice.”
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Two restaurants owned by Lauren Carr's family were destroyed. She spent part of Saturday passing out sandwiches to residents and emergency workers.
The population of Mayfield is just under 10,000. Surrounded by farms, the town is filled with family-run businesses. The Carr family has been running restaurants locally since 1957. Both Carr’s Steakhouse and Carr’s Barn, a barbecue place directly across the street, are now just piles of bricks.

“If we rode out the storm (in the restaurant), we would be dead right now,” says Lauren Carr, who was elected to the Mayfield city council last year. “One of our managers is with the National Guard. He got all the employees and customers out.”

She was able to salvage a bit of meat from the steakhouse. “This was food we managed to put together and serve on a trash can,” she says.

Carr walked up and down West Broadway on Saturday, offering sandwiches to anyone who was digging out and needed a bite. She said she was “just grasping at whatever we can do.”
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Many buildings in Mayfield were completely torn apart.
Traffic backed up around the downtown. With power out and lights not working, people patiently waved fellow drivers through intersections. Pedestrians walking through town have to step carefully over bricks, broken glass and downed power lines.

The National Guard came to help, along with members of fire departments from numerous jurisdictions. An insurance agent drove down from Paducah to hand out diapers and bottled water, her car quickly turning into an informal distribution center for clothing and other donated goods.

A group of about 20 students from Murray State University, 25 miles to the southeast, drove over to help. They’ve been helping homeowners and businesses salvage anything they can use, or carting debris out to dumpsters. They stopped at one business so badly wrecked that one student said she couldn’t tell what it had been.

“Some of us are local and some of us are from out of state,” says Kade Gambill, an MBA student at Murray State. “It feels like home to all of us, so we want to help as much as we can.”

Most of the storage lockers at AAA Stow-A-Way Storage have been blown open, exposing golf clubs, TV sets, dressers, laundry baskets and a child’s rocking horse. A stack of yellow campaign signs promising “lower taxes” are now the ruined souvenirs of Council Member Johnny Jackson’s write-in campaign for mayor.

“When I came into town, I just sat and cried,” says Colleen Alexander, president of the local Lion’s Club, who wanted to check on the club’s storage space.
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Howel Carr stands in front of what's left of his steakhouse. He stayed in the restaurant business for his kids and isn't sure if he'll rebuild.
A few men are picking over the remains of Carr’s Steakhouse, looking through the piles of bricks for anything worth taking away. Howel Carr, Lauren’s father-in-law, tells them they can come back the next day for the same pay.

He’s not sure if he’ll rebuild. “The reason I liked it is because it’s an old building,” he says. “We’re never going to get an old building back.”

Tornadoes are normally a spring phenomenon. Mayfield and the surrounding region were experiencing unseasonably warm weather on Friday, with the local temperature at 73 degrees as the tornado tore through.

With the tornado tearing through two weeks before Christmas, people are worried either about their own holidays or how their neighbors will fare. “The things that insurance don’t cover are the livelihoods of our employees right around Christmastime,” says Lauren Carr.

Keith Crouch promises to make payroll next Friday. The three downtown buildings of Greer Neon, his sign manufacturing company, were all destroyed, but he has another location and says four of his competitors have offered to help in any way they can. “I had probably $150,000 worth of signs in there that were ready to be picked up that are demolished,” Crouch says.

Like Carr’s Steakhouse, Greer Neon is a family business. Crouch’s father-in-law opened it in 1951 and his son works there now. Confident that he’ll rebuild, Crouch is almost sadder about the loss of his prized possessions – two Corvettes, a ’55 Chevy and a ’35 Ford Coupe. “I’ve got a Corvette pinball machine here,” he says. “That’s my baby and it tore it all to pieces.”
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Like many people in the region, Royce Buck had lived through many false warnings. He shrugged off Friday's storm until the last minute.
Entire residential blocks have been wiped out, nothing left of the houses but heavy appliances. The streets are silent except for the roar of distant chain saws.

A tornado hit Mayfield in 2016, damaging 30 buildings and injuring 10 people. Nevertheless, Royce Buck, an attorney and former district judge, says he never took the storms seriously. “We weren’t even watching the news,” he says. “We had family to call and say get to the basement, this is a really bad one, it’s coming right at you.”

Buck and his wife couldn’t get their dogs to come down into the basement, so they decided to stay on the ground floor. When the wind started roaring, they hid in the half bathroom under the stairwell. That got them through, even as the roof blew off and a tree came crashing down through the side of the house.

The Bucks waited three years after buying their 1925 house to move in, waiting until they were finished with renovation. Now it bears a big “X,” suggesting it can’t be repaired. Across North 6th Street, other homes are flattened down to their slabs.

Friends stop by to help with cleanup and to take away the family’s pet birds, a cockatiel and two parakeets. The Bucks grabbed some photographs but they lost a strand of pearls and an inherited bag of silver dollars overnight to “pilfering,” as Royce Buck puts it.

“You walk around and think, ‘Now, what am I gonna do?’” he says. “Then you find yourself picking up what would appear to be the silliest little thing, that really doesn’t have any value, but it’s a part of who you are.”
A few stray items remained intact after what Gov. Andy Beshear called the most devastating tornado event in Kentucky history.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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