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Finding a way back: Dawson Springs still rebuilding one year after deadly tornado

Lily Burris
The Housing Authority of Dawson Springs had all of their 150 units damaged or destroyed by the Dec. 10, 2021 tornado outbreak. Nearly a year after the storms, some of the organization's units are still in the process of being repaired.

Deloris Williams was reading in bed with her cream-colored poodle Sassy when the alarms started going off. Then came the tell-tale sound of a rolling train.

“I thought to myself, you can’t really hear trains here,” Williams said. “And it was getting louder and quicker.”

Williams, a caregiver, lived in an apartment complex in the small western Kentucky city of Dawson Springs. That was the night of Dec. 10, 2021. What she heard was a tornado.

She said she picked up Sassy and tried to get to the bathroom.

“We didn’t make it to the bathroom,” Williams said. “We got knocked down. I got knocked down in between the bed and the dresser. The roof blew completely off, and then the suction picked us up and throwed us through the bedroom wall.”

Determined to hold on to Sassy, Williams said she could feel things pile up on top of them as the twister passed through the apartment complex.

Lily Burris
Deloris Williams is a caregiver who lived in Dawson Springs at the Clarkdale Court Apartments with her cream-colored poodle Sassy on the night of tornado outbreak in December 2021. Her home, a unit with the local housing authority, was destroyed by the tornado and she's been living in a town about 30 minutes away while she waits for the opportunity to come home.

“Then when the tornado went through, in probably 20 seconds time, there was this most dead eerie silence that I have ever heard in my life,” Williams said.

Afterward, Williams said she couldn’t yell and couldn’t move anything except her wrist, which she used to beat on whatever was in front of her. Someone heard her and told her not to move while they pushed away the debris: a dresser, walls and rafters, a tree.
The storm knocked out power across much of the region. Her first look at the destruction was illuminated by lightning.

“When I seen the lightning flash and I seen the situation and the devastation there…it broke my heart,” Williams said.

Much of Dawson Springs was unrecognizable. The tornado completely destroyed the apartment complex and left Williams without a home. Now, she and Sassy live about 30 miles away in Hopkinsville.

“I, personally, am waiting for whenever they build my apartment complex back,” Williams said.

Widespread housing damage

The EF-4 twister that rolled through Dawson Springs on Dec. 10 and 11 last year was part of a larger series of tornadoes that devastated western and central Kentucky. The path of the storms stretched roughly 250 miles and took 81 lives.

The destruction destroyed about 75% of the houses in town, according to estimates from the mayor based on information he received from the local PVA and water department. Giant swaths of the small city became empty lots, concrete slabs and the hollowed out remains of basements.

All 50 units in the Clarkdale Court Apartments, the public housing complex where Deloris Williams lived, were destroyed. Of the local housing authority’s 150 units before the storm, 61 are still uninhabitable or destroyed.

Lily Burris
Housing Authority of Dawson Springs Executive Director Steven Parker has been leading his group through the recovery process as they plan to rebuild their lost units and bring people back home. Parker said they hope to start rebuilding in the spring of 2023.

Steven Parker, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Dawson Springs, said the agency is still trying to find permanent housing for the displaced families they work with.

“My team here at the housing authority worked their butts off to make sure we were able to find contact information and get this information out there,” Parker said. “And I think we did a really good job.”

The authority’s offices were destroyed by the tornado, too. Parker said due to the rising cost of materials, the money the agency received from insurance to rebuild housing and administrative buildings isn’t enough, and he’s looking to federal agencies and grants to fill the gap.

“This community needs this housing. We need this long term housing,” Parker said. “There are serious concerns about the future of long term housing in Dawson Springs as a result of this storm. We're trying our very best to do this as fast as possible, but, unfortunately, this is as fast as possible, and it's terribly slow.”

Parker said he hopes to start rebuilding in the spring.

Rebuilding efforts and volunteer work

The storm buckled the walls of Jerry Vandiver’s home in Dawson Springs, forcing him to demolish the house he lived in for the last 10 years. Now Habitat for Humanity is building him a new one; it’s the first that’ll be completed since the charity set up shop in town.

“I'm very thankful that I had a friend that would let me live with him, but I'm ready to go home,” Vandiver said. “I'm building back on the same spot I was and so that is home.”

Vandiver grew up about 10 miles down the road from Dawson Springs and his new home will either be on the same property, or right next to, where he’s lived for the last 22 years. There’s one thing he’s really looking forward to doing again: visit with his neighbors.

“All the people in Dawson will tell you, I was always sitting on my porch and I'm ready to do that and see everybody again,” Vandiver said.

Heath Duncan, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Pennyrile Region, said the disaster “exponentially increased” the group’s activity.

Lily Burris
Habitat for Humanity Pennyrile Region is one of many volunteer organizations helping with the rebuilding efforts. Executive Director Heath Duncan said the first home the group plans to complete is for Jerry Vandiver, who's lived in Dawson Springs for the last 22 years.

“As the year went on, in 2022, we kind of put a plan together,” Duncan said. “We already had commitments with families through our normal affordable housing program, and so we decided to run that program and our tornado recovery program parallel to each other, which has exponentially increased our activity.”

Habitat for Humanity plans to have walls and roofs built for 10 new houses by the anniversary of the tornadoes, with the goal of building 50 houses over three years for tornado survivors.

Duncan said helping tornado survivors is an important, but ambitious task for Habitat. The organization isn't used to building 20 houses in a year. Duncan described the change as “scary in some ways, but it’s also rewarding.”

“For Habitat to have 12 houses in some phase of construction within the first year after the disaster, that's not normal,” Duncan said. “Usually you’re a year out from a disaster before this amount of activity really starts to happen, but because of the volunteer support and funding support that we've had this year, it's made it possible.”

Moving toward the future

Shortly before the one-year anniversary of the tornadoes, Dawson Springs Mayor Chris Smiley said there are between 30 and 35 houses under construction across town.

“It’s probably going to take, I would say five years at least,” Smiley said. “We won’t ever get back to where we were, I don't imagine.”

Smiley said he wants to see an apartment complex separate from the housing authority to replace one lost in the storm. He described the amount of people who came out and volunteered with the recovery efforts so far as “unbelievable.”

“We need those low income housing back,” Smiley said. “They haven't given us any indication it's not going to come back. Everything's been a positive on that, but the thing that we need the most is to get moving on that.”

Smiley identified several projects that would make Dawson Springs more attractive to move back to, including renovations to the largely destroyed city park, and building a 500-person storm shelter.

“I think there’s some people that’s left that won’t come back, but most of the ones that have ties to Dawson have found a way to come back, and they will,” Smiley said.

But he said the community needs more contractors to help with the recovery process. And many people displaced by the storm need assistance to move back and rebuild.

“The majority of the people that were taken out of their homes are from Dawson, and Dawson is their home and they'll be back,” Smiley said.

“We need material coming in, we want to keep our volunteers coming, and we need a bunch of prayers, so we can ramp back for a better place.”

Investigative Reporter Lily Burris is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.