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Biden tours western Ky. tornado damage as communities work to recover

The people of Dawson Springs took a break from digging themselves and their loved ones out of the debris left by last week’s massive tornado to witness a different once-in-a-lifetime event: the president’s motorcade rolling through downtown.

President Joe Biden surveyed damage in Mayfield, Princeton and Dawson Springs, Ky.— small cities hit hard by the catastrophe — and met with residents as they took account of their worldly possessions, mourned friends lost in the storm and tried to stitch their society back together.

As the long line of armored cars and police cruisers rolled down Arcadia Avenue, a man yelled “Let’s go, Brandon!” from a rooftop as he struggled in the wind to hold down a tarp over a massive hole, and another screamed “F—k you, Joe Biden!”

But most people standing on the side of the street were waiting to catch a glimpse of the president, if not out of political support then out of curiosity, like they were viewing an astronomical event following a dark winter.

Laura Berry, a pastor, waited outside her church with her children for the president to go by. Her son wore a crisp red Make America Great Again hat.

“I mean, it’s a once in a lifetime experience because Dawson is so overlooked, regardless of political views, if you like the president or not, it’s a one in a lifetime opportunity, and my kids are down here now and they’re going to be able to experience it,” Berry said.

Republican Congressman Jamie Comer — who represents the region, was a top supporter of former President Donald Trump and is a fierce critic of the current administration — joined Biden on Air Force One for the trip to Kentucky. 

Comer accompanied Biden as he toured the devastation, along with two generations of Kentucky Democratic governors: current Gov. Andy Beshear and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, a native of Dawson Springs.

Biden said this particular natural disaster and the nation’s response to it make partisan distinctions irrelevant.

"There's no red tornadoes and blue tornadoes. There's no red states or blue states when this stuff starts to happen," Biden said in Mayfield. "And I think, at least in my experience, it either brings people together or really knocks them apart. And we're moving together here."

Austin Franklin narrowly escaped the tornado as he hunkered down in the rear of his house in downtown Dawson Springs while the storm ripped out the front half. The 77-year-old and his dog Vicky were trapped beneath rubble for hours until they were rescued in the early morning.

He came out to see the president because he’s a lifelong Democrat. That was once the dominant party in now deeply Republican western Kentucky.

“I supported him all the way. I think he’s a good president, myself. 90% of Dawson voted against him, I know that,” Franklin said.

During his visit, Biden announced the federal government will pay for 100% of recovery costs for the next 30 days, including debris removal, emergency services, overtime pay for first responders and maintaining shelters.

Jim Farmer, who lives on the side of Dawson Springs that had the least damage, said he’s glad his town is getting national attention, because it needs the help.

“I hope the other towns they aren’t able to visit don’t go unnoticed,” Farmer said.

“I’m glad people are noticing, and maybe we can get some help in here to help these people. Because I was lucky on my side of town, we had some limbs down in the yard, but these people have lost everything.”

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.

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