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University of Kentucky oral history project collects memories of 2021 Mayfield tornado

Debris from destroyed homes is scattered on the ground between bare trees in the aftermath of the tornado.
Derek Operle
/
WKMS
Debris from destroyed homes is scattered on the ground between bare trees in the aftermath of the tornado.

A newly released oral history project documents memories of the December 10, 2021 EF-4 tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky, from the perspectives of survivors – and shares their stories of recovering from the historic disaster.

The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky released the Mayfield, Kentucky 2021 Oral History Project on the two-year anniversary of the western Kentucky tornado outbreak that killed 74 people and destroyed thousands of buildings across more than a dozen counties. In Graves County alone, 24 residents lost their lives in the disaster.

Rebecca Freihaut – a risk and communications crisis expert at the University of Central Florida and native Kentuckian – partnered with the oral history center to produce the project.

“In the weeks after the disaster, I followed the news from Mayfield and wondered what would happen after the news cameras left and they were left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively,” Freihaut said in a UK press release. “It was at that point I decided to try to help in some way.”

In the summer of 2022 – around six months after the disaster that reshaped the heart of the Graves County seat – Freihaut spoke with 22 Mayfield residents about their memories from the day of the tornado, challenges with recovery and stories of rebuilding their lives and community. She then followed up with 18 of those same residents a year later to check in on their progress.

Some of the interviewees spoke about the horrors of the storm at its peak. Matthew Grissom, a Mayfield resident since 2014, remembers how he felt when he took shelter with his friend and his fiancé in the basement of their home – which was in the direct path of the tornado.

“It was like 10 trains coming at once, and you could feel the ground moving, your ears were popping. Not only popping, but it felt like your eardrums getting sucked out of your ear,” Grissom told Freihaut in a 2022 interview. “It was pulling my house, trying to pull it apart as best it could I guess. I remember I just started screaming the Lord’s Prayer, and even then I was screaming at the top of my lungs, I could still barely hear myself.”

Freihaut also spoke with community members about how they processed the traumatic event. One of those residents was Tanna Thompson, who lost her home and vehicles in the 2021 tornado outbreak. She told Freihaut earlier this year that while at times she thought she had processed her loss, the gravity of the event didn’t fully hit her until she moved into a new home last year.

“I was trying so hard to be positive, that I forgot it was okay to be sad. Because I was so thankful to be alive, and people kept telling me, ‘you’ve got the greatest attitude,’ and it’s like, ‘sometimes I don’t,’” Thompson said. “And then all of a sudden, I didn’t have a good attitude. I was so angry. I loved my [old] house, I worked so hard to get it…I had done so much work on it, to make it pretty, to make it a home for my children, and I was so proud of it, and I loved it so much. And [I was] so pissed that it was just gone.”

Freihaut said for many of the participants, it was their first time sharing their story with anyone. She said giving these survivors a space to share their journeys serves as a way for people not to forget the past of Mayfield, and also as a way to rebuild, process and move forward.

“Oral history is more than a traditional interview,” Freihaut said. “It is a chance for a person to release their story.”

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