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'Never knocked out': Kentucky's recovery slow, but progressing six months after tornado outbreak

The Graves County Courthouse still stands in downtown Mayfield, heavily damaged and without its spire, six months after being hit by an EF-4 tornado.
Lily Burris
The Graves County Courthouse still stands in downtown Mayfield, heavily damaged and without its spire, six months after being hit by an EF-4 tornado.

It’s been six months since a devastating and deadly storm ripped through western and southern Kentucky, producing 20 tornadoes, killing 81 people, injuring hundreds more and roiling an entire region.

The event was heartbreaking, and took most people by surprise. Tornadoes aren’t unheard of in Kentucky, but few were expectingone of the longest tornado systems in the country’s history to materialize on the night of Dec. 10 — not exactly twister season.

The massive storm delivered a historic wallop to communities and families of all shapes, sizes, economic backgrounds and cultures — from the 150-person town of Cayce in the westernmost tip of Kentucky, to the fastest-growing city in the state, Bowling Green.

Significant strides have been made to clear debris and rebuild communities, but many people are still searching for permanent housing, battling with insurance companies or struggling to get assistance from the government.

Others have moved on entirely, compounding worries for areas that have already endured decades of population decline.

Check out stories from across the storm's path via this interactive map:

During a news conference the day before the six month mark, Gov. Andy Beshear said the region still has a long way to go.

“We stand here six months after these storms with more work to do, but we are standing,” Beshear said. “No longer knocked down, never knocked out. On our feet with rebuilding to do, but with most debris gone and knowing that not only has help come, but more help is on the way.”

Federal data shows the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved less than 16% of Kentuckians who applied to receive relief from a housing program in the wake of the tornadoes. Claims that were approved in that program alone have amounted to nearly $16 million dollars in federal aid for storm victims, but still, thousands of people have made claims that have gone unfulfilled.

In February, the approval rate was 14%. Federal officials said more people would get benefits through an appeals process.

At the six-month point, Beshear estimated that Kentucky, the federal government and the Red Cross had distributed $193.3 million of disaster assistance to individuals and municipalities.

More than 2,600 people have been temporarily housed through emergency programs in the days and months after the disaster. Beshear announced in May that the Team Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund would help provide up to 300 homes for people who lost everything in the storms.

More than $52 million has poured into the relief fund from donors around the country. Beshear said about $26 million had been spent on things like funeral expenses, supporting uninsured homeowners and building homes. The state legislature also given out $56 million in assistance for victims and rebuilding communities.

Beshear said the state has emerged from the tragedy stronger.

“Our properties are no longer covered in rubble. We’re not worrying about the next day or the next meal. Our kids in these areas have finished their school year,” Beshear said.

The longest tornado track of the system left a 160-mile long path of broken trees, concrete slabs, twisted metal and scattered possessions slowly being cleaned up, grown over, replaced or forgotten. In total, National Weather Service surveys found the 20 tornadoes traveled a nearly combined 290 miles in the Bluegrass State – longer than the Grand Canyon. According to Beshear, about 2.5 million cubic yards of debris have been cleared from the storm’s path since then.

There’s a good deal of hope about how communities will rebuild after the tragedy. State and federal dollars are flowing into small towns that needed a jump start even before the storm.

Still, a scar stretches across the 19 Kentucky counties affected by the system and people are still dealing with some very real trauma.

Kentucky Public Radio documented the state of recovery in nine of those communities, six months in:

  • Cayce — The small Fulton County community was one of the first places to be hit in Kentucky by December’s deadly storms. Six months later, people are rebuilding and starting to return to their homes after having to stay in nearby locations like Fulton and Union City. Most of the homes in the community were damaged or destroyed by the storm and have been replaced by temporary structures–trailers, tiny homes or containers converted into residences.
  • Mayfield — Government data indicates 13.5% of the city's nearly 10,000 residents are Hispanic or Latino. For many in the Spanish speaking community, experiences with government entities outside the U.S. caused confusion and hesitation in the wake of disaster.
  • The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area — Two paths covering nearly 7,000 acres of LBL was carved up by December’s tornado outbreak, leaving portions of the recreation area in both Kentucky and Tennessee heavily damaged after the storm.
  • Princeton — Scientists at the University of Kentucky’s research center in Caldwell County are still figuring out how to move forward with their research six months after a long-track tornado hit their workplace in December. More than 60 on-site employees have been forced to halt most of their research on cattle, soybeans and other crops since the storm.
  • Dawson Springs — A town of fewer than 3,000, once famous for its restorative waters, now looks to heal after a devastating and deadly tornado killed 14 people in the Hopkins County community.
  • Pembroke — A Christian County community of fewer than 1,000 is striving to recover after an EF-4 tornado cut a path across the small town late on Dec. 10, 2021.
  • Bremen — It took just a few minutes to wipe out decades of history for some Kentucky farm families in Muhlenberg County, and with it, their way of life. The deadliest tornadoes in state history destroyed barns and equipment, killed livestock and poultry, and collapsed fences and grain systems. Farmers there are rushing to get crops in the ground amid the rebuilding.
  • Bowling Green — The Warren County city is home to a diverse international population that fled wars and persecution and crossed oceans and continents for a slice of the American dream. Their new life of opportunity and security was upended last December when the worst tornado in Kentucky history ravaged what they had worked so hard build. Some immigrant and refugee families, six months out from the disaster, are resettling all over again.
  • Saloma — The deadly tornado outbreak hit rural communities like the Taylor County town the hardest. The tornado hit acres of farmland and decimated homes along the way.