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One year after a deadly tornado, Kentucky town offers lessons in disaster recovery

From flooding in eastern Kentucky, wildfires in the West, Hurricanes Ian and Nicole in Florida: 2022 brought disasters to areas all over the country. As these communities start the long process of rebuilding, one that is further along in its journey to recovery is Mayfield, Kentucky – which was struck by a powerful tornado in December of 2021.
The powerful, EF-4 tornado killed more than 50 people, many in the town of Mayfield, Kentucky, which experienced catastrophic damage. Their names are now featured on a temporary memorial in the center of town.
A powerful tornado tore threw Mayfield, Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021 and destroyed large sections of the town. Rebuilding is progressing, but slowly, as local government and individuals pick up the pieces and begin new construction.
Around Mayfield, Kentucky, the rebuilding effort is slow-going, as local officials work with state and federal agencies to secure funding for repairs and other recovery needs.
Infrastructure is just one piece of the rebuilding effort in Mayfield, which will now include new community-wide storm shelters.
One program that is trying to encourage communities to plan for potential disasters is the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, with the White House budget calling for $2 billion in funding it.
Posted at 9:20 AM, Dec 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-09 11:51:56-05

MAYFIELD, Ky. — In the kitchen at Carr's Café, it's time for lunch.

"The equipment was a little different,” Daniel Carr said about his current restaurant location. “We've got to work what we had."

Carr grew up in the restaurant business— one started by his grandparents.

His steakhouse in downtown Mayfield was a point of pride, but then came December 10, 2021.

"It was just a pile of bricks, just completely flattened," Carr said.

A powerful tornado tore threw Mayfield and destroyed large parts of the town and the steakhouse. Just prior to it striking, customers and employees were inside, including Carr's son and brother.

"I think he left about seven minutes before the tornado," Carr said. "When the tornado hit, that's something I really was able to kind of hold onto— the fact that we could have lost a lot of lives in the restaurant."

Others in Mayfield, though, did not survive. Their names are now featured prominently in the center of town.

Around it, the rebuild is slow-going.

"We know our future is going to look quite different," said Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan.

She just won reelection to another four-year term and will help guide the city in its rebuilding, which is leaning heavily on federal funds.

"There's a lot of red tape," she said. “That's frustrating and that sets us back, but we work within that because we know they are one of our sources for financial help."

Thomas Chandler, Ph.D., is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness of the Climate School at Columbia University.

"As a society, we have to acknowledge that the frequency and intensity of different types of disasters are increasing,” he said.

Chandler said communities need to ask themselves important questions prior to a disaster.

"What are the building codes?" Chandler asked. "Where are the flood zones, what properties are in foreclosure, what building structures are available to house disaster survivors? A lot of that is not part of the equation and needs to be better incorporated."

One program that is trying to encourage that is the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, with the White House budget calling for $2 billion in funding it.

"It's an effort to enable communities to really apply for a substantial amount of funding, to address declining infrastructure - and that's a major area which needs to be addressed," Chandler said.

Infrastructure is just one piece of the rebuilding effort in Mayfield, which will now include new community-wide storm shelters.

So when will the recovery feel complete?

"Nobody's asked me that question – normalcy, but I don't know what normalcy will look like," O’Nan said. "I think when you feel like you're in your own skin in these new buildings, I guess that's when recovery for me will be complete."

Back at his café, Carr says he knows the town will recover in time, like so many other communities facing the same journey after a disaster.

"At the end of the day, we have our lives, we have our loved ones, we still have our town,” Carr said. “We just got to put it back together."