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Healing and rebuilding take time after Kentucky tornado rampage

Evidence of cleanup and recovery is starting to show in the heart of this tornado-wracked city. Downtown streets are mostly passable, bricks and rubble from smashed buildings removed from some blocks. The site of the demolished candle factory that drew the nation’s sympathy is now a vacant lot.

Since the disaster six months ago, mountains of debris have been removed in western Kentucky and many millions of federal and state dollars have been spent to help Kentucky survivors get back on their feet. Shaken communities across the Bluegrass State are just beginning to regain their footing.

But the historic Mayfield Courthouse, with its majestic clock tower ripped from its façade and its interior damaged beyond repair, is a visible reminder of the tornadoes’ deadly destruction and the challenges as survivors heal and cities are rebuilt.

Tornadoes struck with unexpected force on the night of December 10 and continued the next day, making their way through nine states, including mostly rural Kentucky towns like Mayfield and Dawson Springs and the city of Bowling Green. Eighty-one lives were lost in western Kentucky, 24 of them in Graves County, where Mayfield is the county seat.

Mayfield city officials reported 257 structures destroyed, more than 1,000 damaged.

In the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes, local, state, and federal disaster officials, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers began to mobilize. In daylight, Governor Andy Beshear was touring 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 entire world saw how Kentuckians come together, how we open our hearts and our homes to our fellow citizens in their time of greatest need.”

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

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

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

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 need translation assistance to continue the assistance process and receive eligible assistance.

Housing was a top priority and remains a major challenge in western Kentucky, a rural area already experiencing a housing shortage. However, disaster officials were able to find temporary shelter for displaced survivors before Christmas. Commonwealth officials led the effort, providing cabins in state parks and finding available hotel rooms. They bought 200 travel trailers as a temporary solution. Even six months later, FEMA and the state continue to search for additional long-term temporary housing.

In an effort to make more housing available to disaster survivors, FEMA housing officials have agreed to increase the rental assistance rate to 125% of fair market rent from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. for eligible residents in Caldwell, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg, and Warren counties. FEMA also began bringing in manufactured housing units 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. That figure includes $15.5 million in assistance for housing and other disaster-related essential needs, $58.4 million in low-interest SBA disaster loans for homeowners, renters and businesses, and $1.5 million for fund Disaster Unemployment Assistance.

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

FEMA also distributed information to help disaster-prone areas look to the future and strive for resiliency. Hazard mitigation teams visited home improvement stores, offering tips and advice to tornado survivors on how to reduce the risks of future disasters as they repair and rebuild their homes. Other mitigation teams visited schools, parks and resource fairs with a stormwater model designed to educate the public about the dangers of flooding and ways to reduce flood risks.

But help for Kentucky isn’t limited to restoring damaged buildings, cleaning up debris and learning about flood risk. From the beginning, free crisis counseling has been available 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 is leading the federal recovery operation, noted that FEMA is only one source of assistance. Disaster funds also come from state, local, and other federal partners, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and private donors. Insurance funds flow to people and communities to rebuild.

Funding from all sources means federal and state agencies must coordinate to ensure they don’t pay twice as much for the same work. Howard said these priorities are facilitated by a strong partnership with his state counterparts.

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

And FEMA staff are working alongside them.

As western Kentucky communities begin planning 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 ideas for redevelopment. FEMA’s Interagency Recovery Coordination Team, in collaboration with federal partners including HUD, SBA, the Economic Development Administration and the US Department of Agriculture, is helping to identify resources to support recovery.

The mountain of work ahead begins with a single pebble, with every Kentucky resident playing a small part and all recognizing that the new vision will take time to realize.

“We will keep working 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 it takes.”

Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan can see her beloved city taking shape again, albeit in a new way. She points to a park restored with private donations, where 23 cherry trees have been planted in memory of the city’s sons and daughters lost in the storm. It’s a small step, but no less inspiring for residents who must plan for their future.

“It’s a healing process,” O’Nan said. “It’s devastating at first. So you’re just trying to hold on. And then you think, ‘Let’s go back to normal.’ But when you accept it, that’s when you start to move forward.”

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