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Dawson Springs: Hope and destruction in the tornado’s wake

Dawson Springs on Dec. 11, 2021, the afternoon following the largest tornado system to ever hit the state.
Dawson Springs on Dec. 11, 2021, the afternoon following the largest tornado system to ever hit the state.

Four tornadoes devastated western Kentucky Friday night, the largest of which traveled more than 227 consecutives miles. Among those communities hit hardest was Dawson Springs, population 2,500, hometown of former Gov. Steve Beshear. 

At an afternoon press conference, Beshear’s son, current Gov. Andy Beshear said the destruction in Dawson Springs hit him especially hard as he used to spend time there in the summer, and still has family in town. 

“It’s a special place to me,” he said as he choked up. “I spent about eight hours this morning trying to make sure my cousin who is here was OK along with her family, and I am grateful, but I know the outcomes are so much worse for other families.”

Beshear called it the deadliest tornado event in the history of Kentucky. Devastating. That’s how residents of Dawson Springs, Ky., described it. Over and over again.

“You can’t even tell they’re houses. They just look like piles of wood,” said Mayor Chris Smiley, who sounded exhausted as he spoke to reporters mid-afternoon. 

Smiley said the 150-unit public housing building was hit especially hard. Certain parts of town almost appeared to have vanished, save for massive debris fields. Others stood, but showed clear signs they had taken a beating: bare cross beams exposed on buildings that used to have roofs, windows shattered, power poles snapped, electrical lines snaking across the asphalt. 

People’s possessions were strewn across neighborhoods. A teddy bear in a red Santa jacket lay facedown in the mud under a scrap of sheet metal. A dog wearing a collar, but with no owner in sight, wandered aimlessly around the debris. 

Before the press conference began, Beshear pulled the mayor aside to ask what they could do to help. 

“My guys at local emergency haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Smiley whispered to the governor. 

First responders found several bodies Saturday morning but hadn’t yet been able to identify them, Smiley told reporters. He said the help the city had already received was overwhelming, but he was preoccupied. 

“Right now the thing is just finding the bodies,” Smiley said. “We don’t have any power. They cut our gas off to the city because they had all the gas leaks and lines, so we’re kind of dead in the water right now until we can get the power back on, get the water on.”

A congregation from a local church gathered near the press conference. 

Redemption City Church Pastor Brad Shuck said his church had been damaged in the storm, but he felt blessed that it was not worse. The pastor and members from the church began to repair the roof damage under the mid-afternoon sun.

Shuck said he wanted it to be a community gathering place. He already had plans underway to feed people Saturday night.  

"With so many of our own congregations having been injured, some are in the hospital, some are in surgery right now, some have lost everything they have ever had, so we are just trying to bring hope.”

Shuck asked that people pray for those who’ve been affected by the storm. Here’s a story with information on how you can help

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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