Christmas decorations hang from a shattered window in Mayfield on Dec. 13, 2021, three days after an EF-4 tornado hit the town. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Western Kentucky communities that were devastated by a violent tornado outbreak last year are marking the one-year anniversary of the natural disaster this weekend with gatherings in churches, candlelight vigils and more.
For elected officials and other community members organizing the events, it’s a chance to remember what was lost — lives, entire streets of homes and historic buildings — while also noting the progress made to rebuild houses and come together as a community.
At least 80 Kentuckians lost their lives in a tornado outbreak that tore through communities from Cayce — in the far western tip of the state — to Bowling Green, destroying and damaging thousands of homes along the way.
First responders the night of December, 10, 2021 were helping pull survivors out of the rubble of Mayfield Consumer Products, a candle factory that collapsed when an EF-4 tornado struck the town of about 10,000. Nine people died in that collapse, including a corrections officer for the local jail who was supervising inmates working in the factory.
Now, one local official said hundreds of people making up first responders and other community members plan to walk about two miles Saturday morning from the former site of the candle factory to downtown Mayfield.
Tracy Warner, the emergency management director for Graves County, said search and rescue personnel from Louisville and emergency management staff from Northern Kentucky plan to join the walk. She said it could be an opportunity for first responders and survivors to reconnect.
“Just like an ambulance — you take them to the hospital, you drop them off, you might never know how they were from then on out,” Warner said. “If some of them transported somebody to a hospital, to actually — if they do reunite — to be able to say, ‘Oh, I helped you and you’re doing amazing.’”
Saturday afternoon at Graves County High School gymnasium, the local governments for Mayfield and Graves County will also hold a commemoration service titled, “A CELEBRATION OF HOPE: WE WILL REMEMBER.” Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan said the service at 2:30 p.m. CST is foremost for the local families who lost loved ones in the storms.
“Rebuilding is so vitally important, but we can always rebuild. Those lives will never come back,” O’Nan said. “This is just a small thing we can do to let them know that…we haven’t forgotten people.”
Dawson Springs was also in the 165-mile-long path of the EF-4 tornado that devastated Mayfield. Nineteen people died in the Hopkins County city of less than 3,000, and an estimated 75% of the community’s housing stock was destroyed.
A local church, Dawson Springs Primitive Baptist Church, had its roof torn off by the violent winds. Pastor Jeff Winfrey said the house of worship on East Walnut Street has been repaired, and his congregation plans to have a service at 2:30 p.m. CST Saturday, conveying a message of hope for the future.
“We try to console some who have lost so much,” Winfrey said. “And give hope to the town that we can someday get back to some semblance of what we had.”
Later that evening at 6 p.m. CST, the town will have a candlelight service at City Park. The service will be followed by a dance at the community center that evening.
Dawson Springs mayor-elect Jenny Sewell, who won the position unopposed in this fall’s general election, said rebuilt homes are also being dedicated and showcased that day.
“The fact that people are beginning to have their homes rebuilt, and the fact that other people had come on in to help them to make that happen. I mean, that is a celebration. That is a tremendous celebration,” Sewell said. “We can say that it’s somewhat bittersweet — no kidding. We know what the ‘bitter’ was. But the ‘sweet’ is that the page is turning.”
Cities large and small in the region are also marking the anniversary with gatherings and services as shows of community solidarity.
Marshall County residents plan to gather Saturday afternoon to honor and observe the lives lost from the storms.
The Bowling Green-Warren County Disaster Recovery Group will hold a vigil this Sunday to remember the 17 lives lost there from the tornado outbreak, inviting community members to “focus white light upward” with flashlights, candles and more.
Beshear to visit region
Gov. Andy Beshear told media on Thursday that his Saturday visit to the region will start in Hopkins County before going to Marshall County and then Mayfield. The visit will be a time to commemorate those lost and celebrate rebuilding, he said. “In many ways, every challenge we’ve been through, whether it’s the pandemic or these (natural disasters), we both mourn what we’ve lost, but we also celebrate the heroism of so many people.”
McKenna Horsley contributed to this story.
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