My dad likes to share something my grandfather used to say about living in rural western Kentucky. In these parts, if an emergency hits, you don’t call the sheriff or 911; you call the coroner. It might feel dramatic, but the point is that you have to be self-reliant and resourceful to reside in the country.
On Dec. 11, a tornado missed my family by half a mile. It was part of a deadly storm system, tied for worst in Kentucky’s history. The night of the storm is already blurry and distant. As I attempt to uncover details, I would have thought it occurred a decade ago, not eight days.
My husband, who is from Alabama and accustomed to severe weather, typically snores through storms and tornado warnings. He knew this one was different. It was December and he sensed a quality in the air that day. He shook me at midnight instructing me to “get the kids and get in the closet. The storm is about to hit.” We crouched over our 3- and 6-year-old, creating a human barrier between us and the supercell monster with its 100 MPH winds lurking outside.
Meteorologist Lisa Spencer from the Nashville TV station 65 miles south of our agrarian homestead instructed listeners on Taylor Road (five minutes from us) to take cover. My husband looked at me and said, “That’s us. It’s about to hit us.”
In middle Tennessee and western Kentucky, we are no strangers to tornado warnings. Depending on the reports, we might not always take shelter. But for a meteorologist to specify a location down to a street meant the tornado was very real, very traceable, and heading straight for us. We did the only thing we could at the moment: wait for the storm to pass.
As we waited, our neighbors braced themselves during the impact. One neighbor’s horse farm and livelihood was wadded up and crumbled by the storm in less than 30 seconds. She lost several horses and was forced to put down two herself.
A couple farms away, the owner of the local BBQ joint was vacuumed from his slumber in his bedroom and slung down the hallway of his home. Knocked unconscious, he was awakened by an Amish neighbor who pleaded for help for his family. His 2-year-old daughter was stuck and crushed underneath a collapsed wall. The Amish tend to care for their own ― to ask for help from an outsider communicated the seriousness of the moment. And in this moment, humans needed humans. There was no time to waste.
In a cloak of darkness mixed with sheets of rain and exposed electrical wires, my father and neighboring farmers mounted their tractors. The roads were blocked. Help from the outside couldn’t get in. Ambulances and emergency crews were unable to access those that were hurt. My cousin directed my dad, as he and other country folks cleared the roads of timber with their front loaders, personal equipment, and brawn to pave the way for aid. Like so many lineman and rescue crews, neighbors and farmers put their personal safety aside to crawl through rubble and ripped up metal for those that needed it most.
In rural areas like ours in Christian County, Kentucky, farm operations were hit the hardest. The lids of grain bins holding a season’s worth of harvests were cracked open like canned goods, exposing the family’s potential revenue to the elements. Metal sheds that protected essential machinery were twisted and draped like pieces of tinsel decorating fencerows and uprooted oaks. Tops of houses were peeled open like ripe fruit exposing their rubbled insides. Cotton candy-colored insulation and mounds of twisted lumber, like a collapsed game of Jenga, dotted the roadsides. Fields were littered with dead livestock that hours earlier were peacefully grazing. The grayness of the December sky layered with the naked vegetation and mounds of metal morphed our country haven into a wicked war zone.
The wild and lawlessness of the land that attracted many of us to rural living now felt like a debt to be paid. Every minute mattered. And in those minutes, your tax bracket and political and public health philosophies meant zilch.
Before the storm, I’d felt like altruism had been lost in America. Collectively, we’ve been navigating our safety on our own for the past two years, a consequence of the pandemic. But this event required my community to unite. My rural community, like so many across western Kentucky, came together in a time of crisis. And eight days later, we’re united in our shared commitment to rebuild and restore what was once treasured.
Becky Giles Green is a writer and manages a historic performing arts venue in her hometown in western Kentucky. She is currently at work on a collection of linked essays.