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Keeping a community alive: How Dawson Springs hopes to heal after December’s tornado

Dawson Springs few factory buildings were damaged in the December 10, 2021 tornado outbreak, living the city with even less jobs than before.
Lily Burris
Dawson Springs few factory buildings were damaged in the December 10, 2021 tornado outbreak, living the city with even less jobs than before.

A small Hopkins County town once famous for its restorative waters is still in the early stages of healing after a deadly EF-4 tornado destroyed much of its historic downtown area and a majority of its residences in December.

Dawson Springs – renamed from Dawson City in the late 1800s after the discovery of mineral wells in the town created an economic boom and a tourism draw for the western Kentucky city – was once a destination people came to to relieve their pain. Now, the small town of more than 3,000 is hoping to heal itself by banding together.

Darla Adams, an assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen, and Lori Wooten, a retired school counselor, described Dawson Springs as “devastated” in the initial aftermath.

“I think at first, people didn't really know what to do,” Wooten said. “It was like, you're looking around and…but yet they sprang into action. We had things donated and people working.”

Wooten recalls the sudden influx of people from around the state and country once the storm passed. They came to clear debris, to feed and clothe survivors and extend a helping hand to their neighbors.

“Just even that night, they sprang into action, and people were saving their neighbors and people were out looking for people that we couldn't locate or animals we couldn't locate,” Wooten said. “The school was used as a first aid unit…they got ball uniforms, and tied them, used them as tourniquets, and things like that.”

Not all of the help came from outside the county.

“Some of the Mennonites and Amish had their driver's bring mules or different things and they came and they were delivering to up on the back streets,” Adams said. “I think they delivered to our house for like four weeks.”

Wooten coordinated some of the massive amounts of donations. She said later someone came in and replaced the school’s ball uniforms. Currently, she’s working for Catholic Charities as a case manager and has been able to go into some of the homes in Dawson Springs that have been rebuilt so far. She said seeing the progress “makes your heart good.”

Tammi Workman, chair of the local parks board, said she thinks the signs of progress have been especially good for the kids in the community.

“I think they needed a bit of change of scenery because they were coming through that every day when it was so bad — now that it looks better and things are turning around a bit,” Workman said. “But they still were coming through that every single day, which – it was breaking our hearts – I can only imagine what it was doing to the littles seeing that everyday.”

The trio agreed getting the kids in the community back into school and together in the month after the disaster was a big sign of progress for the community as it worked to recover. Rebuilding takes time, and the people of Dawson Springs know that.

Darla Adams, an assistant manager at the Dawson Springs Diary Queen, shows off her hometown which was damaged by the December tornadoes. She knows just about everyone in the city.
Lily Burris
Darla Adams, an assistant manager at the Dawson Springs Diary Queen, shows off her hometown which was damaged by the December tornadoes. She knows just about everyone in the city.

Wooten said she’s worked with families in temporary housing that are focused on coming back to Dawson Springs and keeping their kids in the local independent school system. Adams’ husband recently retired from the Housing Authority of Dawson Springs and said the timeline the group was looking at for rebuilding lost homes could take about 18 months.

Reflection has proved just as important as planning for the community’s future.. Donnie Dunbar – who coordinates the Dawson Springs BBQ 5K – coordinated a walk through tornado-impacted parts of town in April to give people the opportunity to reminisce on what was once there and now, as Dawson Springs looks toward the summer, Dunbar is hoping his event can give people a taste of normalcy.

“Things are happening, and we are trying to get back to normal,” Dunbar said.

One of the difficulties of recovery, Adams pointed out, has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Workman thinks the added stress of being displaced has really impacted the health of different people in the community.

“The reason people live here is because we can go to the grocery store and get caught up an hour talking to people that we know,” Workman said. “I mean, does anybody ever go to the grocery store under an hour? No, nobody does, but it's what we want. We want the slow pace life, the consistency, the knowing and that's coming back.”

There’s a lot still standing between Dawson Springs and a full recovery. There’s still a big need for housing with some people displaced to other cities and locations like the nearby Pennyrile Forest State Park. Some of those people who lost homes might not come back and a decreasing population could deplete the tax base for the local school district. There’s also some concern about jobs.

The few factories in Dawson Springs were hit by the December tornado outbreak, leaving the buildings unusable and some of the locals without work. There was also an empty building in the local industrial park that was about to be sold before the storm came through.

“We're centrally located. You can drop off here on I-69. We have access to a railroad here,” Adams said. “We have a lot of opportunity here that nobody, I don't think, sees.”

A seed storage business destroyed when the storm swept through Dawson Springs’ industrial area is expected to build back in the city. A stainless steel utensil production building was also destroyed in the disaster.

Dawson Springs Mayor Chris Smiley said the Dawson Springs Independent School District is probably the biggest employer in the city right now.

“As far as other jobs in town, mostly we've got the typically [jobs], we’ve got a Dairy Queen, we’ve got the service stations or convenience centers,” Smiley said.

A lot of people work at factories or other businesses in the nearby cities of Madisonville, Hopkinsville or Princeton. The past couple of decades have seen the tourism and industrial businesses fade without being replaced and a commuting coal miner population go away.

“Our workforce is down. You talk to your specialists and everything, they say, ‘Well if you don't have the workforce it won’t be there,’” Smiley said. “But it's kind of like the Field of Dreams, you build it, they'll come. I'm sure that there will be people looking for jobs. If we can get them in there at $20 an hour, I'm sure there'll be people who will drive from other counties to come around and work.”

Smiley said the city has been talking about what would be good industries and factories to come to Dawson Springs. They’ve also been working with a couple of groups about what might be beneficial and practical for the city.

“The main thing that I'm looking for is people to build back,” Smiley said.

Dawson Springs was among the cities damaged in the December 2021 tornado outbreak. In this town, the many of the properties damaged by the local housing authority were damaged or destroyed.
Lily Burris
Dawson Springs was among the cities damaged in the December 2021 tornado outbreak. In this town, the many of the properties damaged by the local housing authority were damaged or destroyed.

Part of the city’s efforts to help people come back is an economic recovery group with participants from the city, county and other entities like Murray State University. One of those group members is Madisonville Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation president Ray Hagerman.

“We have had interest off and on to locate something in [a] specific building,” Hagerman said. “But even pre-tornado, the issues have always been whether or not they can find enough workforce, specifically in Dawson Springs, for that building.”

Hagerman said the economic development department has always stood by the belief that there is enough workforce in Dawson Springs to fill any employment need a company may have. Now, they’re trying to figure out if they should build back the speculative building.

“I don't think there's been anything comparable that we can look to, to actually say, recover exactly like this,” said Hagerman.

Prior to the tornado, Hagerman created an impact analysis for a company creating 100 jobs in Dawson Springs.

“Someone that was potentially looking at the spec building that could create 100 jobs … by the time you had indirect and induced jobs added back, it was about 350 jobs that it created in total,” Hagerman said. “Now, it's not to say that all of those are relatively good jobs, but … 350 jobs for an actual workforce of 800 people in Dawson Springs meant that that particular deal could have accounted for 40% of the jobs in [the city].”

Hagerman said any company willing to bring jobs to Dawson Springs would help the city to come back faster. Things like the run of power and housing continuing to be built will help the area be more appealing to companies wanting to come in. He said they’re unlikely to build the building back, but since they did get insurance money from the damages, they might use those funds to entice a company and help them with a new building.

Dawson Springs is slowly but surely coming back to life. The local Baptist Health is back up and running, the Dairy Queen and other local restaurants have reopened, and homes are being rebuilt as peopleplan for the future.

Community members like Adams, Wooten, Workman and Dunbar are optimistic for the city’s recovery.

“I'm hoping that people will drive through and they're going to see what these people are investing in our community and will say, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity. We could go down here and build a house. They got a great school system,’” Adams said. “We're a little laid back here, we're a little slower pace, we're family oriented.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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