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‘Everything was going to be better’: Cayce on path to recovery after devastating tornado

Lily Burris
Joy Johnson, long-time Cayce resident, once lived on a hill beside State Route 94. Her home was destroyed by the deadly December tornado outbreak and now her son is looking to rebuild there.

The old Cayce High School building stood on a hill overlooking State Route 94 in Fulton County for 85 years. It was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, and destroyed by a tornado in December 2022. Now, it’s nothing more than a concrete foundation and a few partial walls.

Joy Johnson’s home of 32 years, not far from the former school, suffered the same fate from the devastating EF-4 tornado that swept through Cayce, Mayfield and Dawson Springs on Dec. 10.

“It's heartbreaking, to say the least. We built our family there, all of our memories, everything that we had with all of our family ties was done in that home that used to be sitting on that hill,” Johnson said. “And that's hard, it's hard to walk away from. It does make you sad.”

Now, Johnson’s moved to Tennessee with her husband. Local estimates indicate most of the destroyed properties were residential with about two thirds of the homes in Cayce damaged or destroyed during the tornado outbreak.

Four months later, Johnson’s home is still a pile of rubble.

“Everything after [the disaster] has been a blur,” Johnson said. “We were taken out by the rescue squad and my son and the First Choice employees at Mayfield and we just sat in the rain and I was just [at] a total loss. When we got our bearings back straight, I knew everything was going to be better than what it looks right there.”

She’s still looking through the land periodically to see if she can find some of the things lost in the outbreak. Johnson plans to deed the land to her son Jordie, who’s on the local rescue squad and wants to start his family in Cayce.

“We hope that they have 30 some odd years plus on that hill, and they help the community build back,” Johnson said.

The area’s been cleaning up debris since the tornado, and local officials have been putting in the work to help the area. Johnson described Cayce as a total loss from the tornado, but said compared to other areas impacted, it looks like it’s ahead of places like Mayfield and Dresden, Tennessee.

“I think Cayce has been foremost in the front of cleanup and recovery,” Johnson said. “The county officials here have been hands on and on the ground running. I don't know how they've been in the other counties…but to look at the progress on the cleanup, Cayce is far ahead as far as volume wise, as to the rest of the counties and even in Tennessee.”

Johnson said one of the challenges for Cayce moving forward will be to have patience as officials work behind the scenes and as grant applications are processed.

One of those officials is Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin. He said one of the ways officials are trying to get funding for the area is through a $500,000 dollar community development block grant.

“It was probably three days into the tornado, I made a phone call to the Department of Local Government, told them what we wanted to do, we wanted to procure money for building materials, and we identified the CDBG program as a target for that,” Martin said. “They responded immediately.”

Fulton County hasn’t received the grant yet, but Martin is confident they will. They’re hoping to build around 20 houses as a part of the recovery process. Martin said 23 structures in the community were totally destroyed.

Lily Burris
Cayce, a small community in Fulton County, was one of the areas in the path of the devastating December tornado outbreak.

Martin thinks the biggest obstacle Cayce will face during this process is supply and labor availability.

“Normally, money is the number one problem when you undertake a project like that,” Martin said. “But this particular project, money is not our biggest problem. It is supply chain and labor.”

Martin said he’s not sure they have enough money to do everything they want to at this point, but with needs in counties throughout the western part of the state, resources are going to be limited.

Cayce is getting help though. The area has received seven container homes from the Community Fund of West Kentucky. A man from Georgia donated an Airstream trailer to Cayce United Methodist Church, where Jim Wolfgang is pastor.

Wolfgang was in the church the night of the tornado. fWhen the power first went out, that’s all Wolfgang thought the storm was going to amount to, and he was getting ready to head over to his home to check on his wife, who was watching a Christmas movie.

“Whenever I heard that tornado literally coming then, it sounds, really does, sound just like a freight train, as people say, or locomotive coming,” Wolfgang said. “Then also I felt pressure in my ears change and I've heard that if you experienced that, you're too late already. It's where you are and you can't do anything except try to take cover.”

He took cover in one of the closets in Cayce United Methodist Church with some of the neighborhood dogs. The church itself sustained a large hole in the roof and the glass in the front was completely blown out.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Wolfgang went to check on his neighbors and saw that the parsonage he lived in was no longer liveable since the roof was gone.

“My initial thought was ‘I've never been through something like this, I don't know what you do,’” Wolfgang said with a laugh. “Finally it occurred to me – a minister seems to be the last person to realize – that you should pray about this. Well then things started to clarify.”

The Cayce Long Term Recovery Group met recently. Some of the takeaway points from the meeting included what the American Red Cross, United Way, and Habitat for Humanity were doing in the area, mental health services available and the work the county has been doing in the area.

Wolfgang said the area has received lots of offers to help and support the recovery process. Fulton County has its own PayPal account with the Community Foundation of West Kentucky for people who want to donate. Anyone interested in helping Cayce in other ways is encouraged to reach out to Cayce Baptist Church’s Pastor Mark Dowdy who is the head of the Cayce Long Term Recovery Group.

The pastor said people immediately started to show up to help the morning after the storm and the community is still getting support and care from people who want to help.

“You are literally lifted up, your spirits are lifted up, you can't help but feel encouragement and know things will get better,” Wolfgang said. “They are getting better because of these folks that are helping out. It's not all about you doing it all by yourself.”

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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