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Kentucky tornado survivors living in limbo nearly one year later

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Julia Rendleman
/
Kentucky Lantern
Downtown Mayfield on Nov. 18. Damage from the December 2021 tornado still dominates the view.

Waiting for housing almost a year after tornado laid waste to Mayfield

MAYFIELD — Makayla Puckett didn’t feel comfortable with talking about what happened until recently. She would speak about that December 2021 night and have to sometimes stop herself, the trauma too much to recollect.

The 25-year-old mother of two kids remembers squeezing into a small closet of their Mayfield home with her partner, the train-like roar of an EF-4 tornado tearing through their small Western Kentucky community. The wind blew underneath the closet door as Puckett screamed for God to protect her family; she had never been religious up until that night when her town changed forever.

“A couple of months after it happened, I drove down there again, and I just completely bawled, just crying as I went by,” Puckett said. “That whole street is wiped out.”

Puckett’s sister, Stacey, was one of the first people to arrive at their damaged 11th Street two-bedroom home. She took Puckett’s older daughter, 6-year-old Delilah, to her home on the other side of town that was untouched by the storm the morning after, the sunrise showing the damage that had been done.

“She was the first person that had taken my daughter and made sure that she did not see anything,” Puckett said, her voice choking. “She is the one that has cooked us homemade meals and made sure that we were safe and warm.”

After the tornado, Puckett’s family had to move from their two-bedroom rental, the cold seeping inside because of a lack of electricity. The four of them eventually decided to move into Stacey’s home on West Willow Drive, sharing a single bedroom for several months. It’s where Puckett’s youngest, 18-month-old Khaleesi, first learned to crawl. But they eventually decided they needed their own space, especially with a recent ADHD diagnosis for Delilah.

They found that space at Camp Graves, a nonprofit formed in the wake of the disaster to provide transitional housing for those displaced. They’ve lived in one of a row of travel trailers the past two months, the small home filled with clothing and baby pictures.

“We’ve gotten blessings left and right since we’ve been here,” Puckett said. “Everyone needs to be looking at the next couple of years for everybody that has been affected. Because it’s going to take that long to be able to recover from this, and I don’t think we’ll ever recover mentally from it.”

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Julia Rendleman
/
Kentucky Lantern
Robert Johnson, 35, stands with his partner, Makayla Puckett, 25, children Delilah Jenkins, 6, and Khaleesi Johnson, 1, and Makayla’s sister Stacey Feezor outside their camper at Camp Graves where they live in transitional housing after losing everything in the December 2021 tornado, on Nov. 18, 2022 in Graves County, Kentucky.

The Puckett family’s housing challenges almost a year after a violent tornado outbreak tore through Western Kentucky reflect a reality faced by many other survivors in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 that is trying to keep its residents, businesses and community together.

The Western Kentucky region saw a sprawling trail of devastation from the December 2021 outbreak, including one that stayed on the ground for over 165 miles. The toll from that tornado, starting in Tennessee before reaching Mayfield, included 57 deaths and more than 500 injuries, also damaging and destroying thousands of homes.

Some survivors who lost their homes who were living in state park lodges and hotels are now in a housing limbo — living in trailers, crowded in the homes of friends or family, in their cars — waiting for a permanent home they can call their own to arrive. That day may be years away.

A surgical strike on rental housing

Mayfield was an economically depressed community before the storm, with an estimated 35% of the city in poverty — three times the national average — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income sits at a little over $36,000, around the income limit set for a family of four in Kentucky to qualify for food stamps.

Tom Waldrop, who’s been a realtor in Mayfield for over four decades, said while some neighborhoods were spared by the tornado, the majority of homes hit were low-income rentals.

“The swath of the tornado as it came through Mayfield was almost a surgical strike,” Waldrop said. “I’ve heard numbers north of 75% of the property that was destroyed — the 400 units that were destroyed — were rental housing.”

In the initial days after the tornado, community landmarks were disfigured beyond recognition, historic downtown churches reduced to a pile of strewn bricks, the county courthouse steeple sheared off while gaping holes of shattered glass scarred storefronts. Many of those landmarks have since been torn down, leaving empty space, some still strewn with rubble, that expands across the central part of town. Other residential streets remain untouched by the disaster including the local schools, conveying a sense of normalcy in a community that’s experienced anything but.

Waldrop serves as the co-chair for a committee focused on housing, part of a local volunteer group gathering feedback and planning the community’s recovery. He said some landlords weren’t insured and many that were didn’t receive enough insurance funding to rebuild; the higher costs of home rebuilding due to supply chain bottlenecks and federal interest rate hikes make it more prohibitive.

Landlords may be repairing some of their rental housing, he said, but not all. Several of the federally-subsidized apartment complexes in town were hit, too.

The Eloise Fuller Apartments, formerly a hospital in downtown Mayfield that was turned into 61 apartments meant for the elderly, is being torn down and replaced with just 15 apartments. Windhaven Apartments, which had more than 50 units, hasn’t moved in any former tenants because electric lines and transformers are still being installed, according to a secretary for the company that owns the complex. The Mayfield Housing Authority has long waiting lists for its apartments; there are more than 700 requests for one-bedroom units.

“We’ve got to have housing, we got to have scale, and we’ve got to have it quick,” Waldrop said. “Because these people that are living with a brother-in-law, are living in a FEMA trailer, living in a hotel room in a surrounding community — it’s my belief that if they see sawdust and they see shingles and they see progress, they’ll hang on. But if they don’t see progress at scale, they’re gonna try to find other places to live.”

Sonny Gibson, a local landlord who owns more than 100 properties in the city, said he’s heard from other landlords that are raising monthly rents for some of their apartments to make up for repair costs after the tornado. He said he probably will raise rents on some of his properties, but by no more than 10% because of the economic situations of some of his tenants.

“So many people are on fixed incomes,” Gibson said. “You can only get so much blood out of that turnip and the turnip dies. So you have to be mindful of where people are economically.”

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Julia Rendleman
/
Kentucky Lantern
Damage left from the December 2021 tornado can still be seen in downtown Mayfield, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022 in Graves County, Kentucky.

Finding shelter

The depleted rental stock forced at least one Mayfield couple to look almost an hour outside of the community for a place. Ashley Prince and her boyfriend Dylan had moved to Eddyville in Lyon County after the tornado demolished their three-bedroom rental on West Walnut Street in Mayfield.

The storm ripped through the early-20th-century home’s walls and buried Ashley, 26, in her crawl space underneath debris. The tornado toppled the water tower next to her home, a cascade of water pushing her out of the rubble. She tore a ligament and broke a bone in her leg, injuries that she still deals with.

Their rental in Mayfield had issues — mainly water leaks — but it was affordable at less than $500 a month. She said the three-bedroom rental in Lyon County — where the median gross rent is a little over $600, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — was going to be $1,200 a month, something they could only manage with rental assistance. But they were evicted from the place because she never received the assistance.

“Landlords are taking advantage of it, that people need housing,” Prince said, adding that “$1,200 a month for a three-bedroom house is outrageous.”

The two were forced for a few weeks to live in their vehicle, a 2002 Dodge Caravan, something they could only afford with the $1,800 they received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It was her family that ultimately helped her find some temporary stability: They moved into her mother’s place just north of Mayfield. They’ve lived there for about six months with her mother and father along with her brother and his wife who were also displaced by the tornado.

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Julia Rendleman
/
Kentucky Lantern
Ashley Prince, 26, and Dylan Prince, 28, stand for a picture at Camp Graves where they hope to find transitional housing. They lost everything in the December 2021 tornado.

“My mom’s like, ‘If you don’t move back in here, I’m gonna come and get you,’” Prince said. “She’s pretty much the only person we’ve really had to lean on.”

The couple recently applied to live in transitional housing in Camp Graves, the nonprofit in southern Graves County, to have their own place for themselves and her two kids.

“I know several people who lived on the same block as me who are living with family members right now, and to have something available to live in while you’re waiting for a more permanent solution is everything. Not having to feel like you’re a burden to your family is everything,” Prince said. “I hate having to stay with my parents, especially since I’m getting up near 30 years old and I have kids. It makes me feel like I’m burdening them. They never say anything, and they don’t make me feel like I’m a burden. I just feel that way.”

Slow progress

A number of nonprofits — local and international — have tried to fill in needs for both temporary, transitional housing and more permanent housing in Mayfield, but the ultimate goal of those efforts could be a long road.

Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, is building around 60 homes to become a brand-new subdivision on the outskirts of Mayfield. The homes are specifically being gifted to former renters who lost their homes. Makayla Puckett’s family — who was living from paycheck to paycheck with the salary from her partner’s warehouse job — is one of the families receiving a home there.

Tim Cottrell, who manages the construction of the subdivision for Samaritan’s Purse, said those homes will take time.

“We’re just trying to build as fast as we can,” Cottrell said. “We’re going to be here probably two years.”

Gov. Andy Beshear allocated $16 million from the state’s tornado relief fund to support nonprofits building permanent homes, including the local nonprofit Homes and Hope for Kentucky, which has built at least 14 homes for former homeowners who were displaced in the tornado.

The local long-term recovery group has also started an effort to repair and renovate 25 vacant homes by Christmas for former renters, an effort that the group’s executive director, Ryan Drane, calls “an extremely aggressive goal.”

“As long as there are survivors that want to become homeowners and can prove that it’s financially sustainable for them, and that we can continue to get funding and have volunteers come in, we’re going to continue this program,” Drane said. “Having people become homeowners, they really become a part of the fabric of the community and enables them to put down roots in the community, and that’s one of the main things that we need.”

The long-term recovery group plans to have displaced survivors pay rent based on their income for a year, then give them the home at a discounted rate. The survivors will also take classes in finance and home ownership, with the group offering survivors an opportunity to buy the home at the end of that year of renting.

Drane said he appreciates that the state legislature had allocated $200 million earlier this year to rebuild infrastructure, repair schools and bolster the budgets of local governments in Western Kentucky, but he wishes there was more flexibility with the funds to better meet the specific needs of each impacted community.

He also realizes that the home rebuilding process is a long one. The Kentucky Department for Local Government is allocating nearly $75 million in federal funds through new programs, with a planned launch this spring, to incentivize landlords to repair their rentals and to help homeowners and other entities build new homes.

“It takes a while for money to flow from the federal government or the state government,” Drane said. “Especially when you’re talking about new construction, then it takes a while to build something.”

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Julia Rendleman
/
Kentucky Lantern
Office manager Cassy Basham stands outside of container homes Nov. 18, 2022 at Camp Graves, which provides transitional housing for those in need, in Graves County, Kentucky.

Waiting for a future

But until these permanent homes are repaired and rebuilt, displaced tornado survivors in Mayfield remain in housing limbo waiting for their future.

A group of local churches in Graves County has built 20 tiny homes that are almost all occupied, filled with families and the elderly. The few travel trailers at Camp Graves also are serving as transitional housing, and the nonprofit is still seeking funding to build more tiny homes of its own.

Dakota Moore, 21, a tornado survivor, recently moved into a trailer at Camp Graves. He was working the night of the tornado at Mayfield Consumer Products, a local candle factory, when it collapsed on top of him. He was able to pull himself out of the rubble and help pull out more than a dozen of his fellow coworkers. Nine people died in the factory collapse.

“I had about an inch and a half length of glass in my arm,” Moore said. “I didn’t realize it until one of the people that were helping me pull people out, because I gave him a flashlight, is like, ‘Hey dude, you’re bleeding.”

The candle factory is expanding a facility north of Mayfield to hire workers previously laid off because of the disaster, but is also facing charges of federal workplace safety violations along with allegations by former employees that they were retaliated against for cooperating with the workplace safety investigation. Mayfield Consumer Products denies the allegations and is contesting the federal charges.

Moore soon learned that the duplex rental that he and a friend lived in on Sixth Street was destroyed. His friend’s mom gave him a car, a Toyota Corolla, that she was given after the tornado. He used that car to couch surf with people he knew around the region, sometimes staying the night in the car.

“I don’t like staying in places too long because I felt like a burden,” Moore said. “I was staying with my ex for a little because she’s the only person that I actually talk to.”

For him, having a place at Camp Graves is a relief from that burden. When he leaves his job at a nearby Dollar General, he returns to a home where he can plan a future.

“It feels a lot better than staying in my car or staying in other people’s houses.”

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Liam Niemeyer
/
Kentucky Lantern
Dakota Moore sits in the front seat of his car that he’s slept inside some nights this year. On those nights, he would push the car seat down and use blankets to keep warm.

This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.
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