As tornado recovery continues, Muhlenberg County expects long-term rebuilding process
The December tornadoes took lives and destroyed property throughout much of western and southern Kentucky. Communities in the region are beginning to pick up the pieces and form long-term plans to rebuild.
Curtis McGehee is the judge-executive of Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, which includes the hard-hit town of Bremen. The county suffered at least a dozen deaths from the tornado and saw 91 homes destroyed, with 46 homes taking heavy damage. McGehee said officials are still working to assess the financial scope of the destruction.
“We’re not sure what the extent of the damage is concerning dollars. But my emergency management director did tell me he thinks it’ll be upwards of $100 million,” McGehee said.
McGehee said cleanup efforts began hours after the tornado struck and will continue until the community is rebuilt.
“We had a lot of people come out Saturday, the morning following the tornado,” McGehee said. “Farmers, construction workers, construction companies, just people that wanted to get involved and they brought everything from chainsaws or small tractors on up to bulldozers to help us.”
The tornadoes quickly brought an onslaught of government assistance at the local, state, and federal levels. McGehee said he's grateful for the offers of support and visits from leaders including Governor Andy Beshear.
“Everyone from my local representative, my state representative, to the governor, was calling me on Saturday [Dec. 11, 2021], reaching out to see how they might be helpful,” McGehee said. “We had people from the state and federal levels contacting me to make sure that everything was running smoothly and offering to provide assistance if needed.”
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now active in helping western Kentuckians seek aid after the disaster, McGehee said residents of Muhlenberg County started working to rebuild the community without help from the federal government.
“While we appreciate FEMA and other entities that might have been involved in cleanup, we didn’t wait on them. We started on Saturday [Dec. 11, 2021] getting things cleaned up and within a few days it looked much different,” McGehee said.
In addition to the public sector support that came shortly after the tornadoes hit, volunteers and monetary donations quickly found their way to the impacted communities. However, McGehee said those sources of support have been less stable than the government’s presence.
“We are continuing to see a lot of donations, but not as many as we did the first week,” McGehee said. “It leveled off and then it diminished some. But people are still expressing concern.”
McGehee said much of the focus now has turned to making sure residents make responsible choices when seeking out contractors and workers to rebuild their homes. The county sought out Arkansas-based disaster consulting company ERAssist to provide support for navigating FEMA regulations and tracking recovery efforts in the community. The county is also working with Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office to ensure contractors operating in the community are reputable and properly licensed.
Overall, McGehee said he is proud of how Muhlenberg County responded to the tornadoes, and thankful for how those outside the community stepped up to help.
“From Friday night [Dec. 10, 2021] until today, the outpouring of love and support that we’ve seen not just here in our county but from neighboring counties and counties across the commonwealth, even from other states, has been marvelous. We’ve never felt alone, there has just been a tremendous amount of support. Not only do I appreciate that, but those that were impacted by the tornado appreciate it.”
McGehee said he hopes to see the bulk of the reconstruction completed and a sense of “normalcy” in the community by June 2022.