Residents of disaster-impacted communities represent resilience at the Kentucky State Fair
The Kentucky State Fair is a showcase of some of the best the Commonwealth has to offer, from livestock and crops to crafts and food.
It’s also a venue for showing off different parts of the state, through the Pride of the Counties exhibit. There, dozens of counties send representatives to inform other Kentuckians about what their hometowns have to offer.
This year, that included western counties impacted by the December tornadoes and one affected by the flooding that occurred about a month ago in the east.
Both weather disasters were unprecedented. Homes, businesses, schools and whole towns were destroyed. Between the tornadoes and the floods, more than 100 Kentuckians lost their lives.
Residents are still recovering from the damage. Despite those recovery efforts, representatives from those places came to the fair to remind people they are still standing.
“We’re a thriving community and we’ve got a great education system, we’ve got a strong workforce, our tourist attractions are just growing and growing and we’re getting attention and we’re proud of that,” Karen Robinson with Muhlenberg Alliance for Progress said.
Muhlenberg County was one of many in the path of the tornado and the Muhlenberg Alliance for Progress is an area economic development organization.
Robinson said being at the fair demonstrates how far the community has come since December.
“It’s humbling, it makes us realize what we were able to bounce back from,” Robinson said. “We’ve had a lot of losses, we’ve had a lot of home losses, but we’re able to build back.”
She said community members are working to restore what was lost to the tornado. Currently, officials are trying to find a space where they can place a storage facility to hold supplies and donations that could be used after future storms or natural disasters.
The opportunity to see the way other tornado-impacted communities are rebuilding is part of the reason Steven Elder came to manage the West Kentucky Alliance for a Vibrant Economy booth.
Elder is from Mayfield, where among the buildings destroyed were a candle factory, homes and parts of the city’s downtown. He said that while the city is in the rebuilding phase, a lot of that looks like tearing down damaged structures.
“Everything is kinda flat concrete right now, slates and stuff,” Elder said.
He said being in Pride of the Counties sections allowed him to see the way other areas have been developing their downtowns.
Elder hopes that reconstruction efforts could help revitalize the city itself.
“A lot of people have left, their homes have been destroyed, their lives have just been disrupted,” Elder said. “We want to get people back to Mayfield and Graves County.”
The fair offered Elder ideas, but also a chance to enjoy being around others in a positive space.
“It’s fun to be out, to kinda see some normalcy throughout the state,” Elder said, “Coming to the state fair you get a little bit of hope.”
Seeing the counties impacted by the recent natural disasters offered a sense of hope that these communities will be able to bounce back, he said.
Representatives of flood-impacted communities, which are much earlier in their recovery efforts, were not as able to attend the fair. Farrah Dobbs with The Kentucky Wildlands, which promotes parks, rivers and other natural attractions in the eastern part of the state, said local tourism directors asked her to represent them at the fair.
“It’s been really nice to represent eastern Kentucky this week,” Dobbs said. “It is so important to keep the spirit alive about eastern Kentucky. These communities are on the rebuild and so we just want everybody to know just how resilient eastern Kentucky is.”
Dobbs was raised in Letcher County and parts of her extended family still live in the area. She said she went there recently to drop off supplies and the devastation in the area was heartbreaking.
“It was just absolutely heart-wrenching. There were many moments where I just broke down and wept,” Dobbs said.
For Dobbs, being able to represent her home means she gets to share with others what makes it stand out.
“Our people are some of the nicest, most proud people that you’ll meet,” Dobbs said. “You cannot replicate eastern Kentucky, nobody replicates our accent, they replicate our hospitality.”