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Cayce community continues to find a way toward recovery from December tornado

Lily Burris
From the main intersection in Cayce with State Route 94, Gardner's Electrical Service can be seen in it's new building. The company is back in small Fulton County community six months after the storm.

From the main drag on State Road 94 through Cayce in far western Kentucky you can see a red building that wasn’t there six months ago.

Gardner’s Electrical Service, one of two businesses in population 142 Cayce, was ripped apart by a tornado on December 10th, 2021. But the company has been part of the community for 24 years, and owner Larry Gardner says it was important to rebuild.

“I've had many people tell me, ‘It sure looks good to see something rebuilt in Cayce,’ so it means a lot to us, of course,” Gardner said. “Business-wise, it really helps us now that we have our shop back and our office back. But as far as just the presence here in the town and the community, it really helps. They can see some progress.”

The business is situated next to what remains of old Cayce High School, a Depression-era building that had been abandoned for a decade before the tornado outbreak leveled it. Now all that’s left is a historical marker telling the story of railway legend Casey Jones, a Cayce native credited with saving lives during a railroad accident that ultimately killed him.

Gardner’s new office features a couple relics from the old days, both found in the aftermath of the tornado: a plaque announcing the Works Progress Administration role in building the school in 1936, and the center of the old gym floor with the Cayce Tigers logo.

“The school meant a lot to the community, just the fact that it was standing there, just because so many people went to school there and remember the school and what it meant to them,” Gardner said. “It was going to fall down at some point, but the tornado really helped it. Now we're in the process of getting it cleaned up, and as soon as we get what's usable out of it, we're going to fix it, make it look nice, and hopefully someday, have some kind of something up there that people will appreciate.”

The school was just one of the many buildings lost to the tornado. Farther down the road, a fire truck sits on the concrete foundation where the Cayce Fire Department once stood. Cayce United Methodist Church is still having its parsonage rebuilt. Most of the homes in the community were damaged or destroyed by the storm and have been replaced by temporary structures–trailers, tiny homes or containers converted into residences. Gardner says rebuilding has been slow.

Lily Burris
Cayce, a community of less than 150 people, has been working to recover from December's tornado outbreak over the last six months.

“Everything along 94 Highway, except for one house and the church, was completely destroyed,” Gardner said. “Just to see a whole community disappear basically, and that was the hardest thing. And then you wonder, ‘What in the world are we going to do?’ We just had to start and slowly work together and everybody come together, and we'll try to get it put back together.”

One home has already been repaired by the Habitat for Humanity of Fulton & Hickman County Kentucky, and the organization promises to build three more homes in Cayce this year for families that have already been selected.

Fulton County has a long-term recovery committee that’s been working to help the community navigate this process. Gardner, who is familiar with construction work and sits on the committee, says it’s hard for residents to understand all the red tape and regulations that go into the recovery.

“I'm on the long term recovery team and trying to make sure that everything, all your i's are dotted and your t's crossed, and make sure you're eligible for whatever is out there as far as grants and money and loans or whatever,” Gardner said. “Just keeping things organized is the hardest thing.”

Cayce Baptist Church Pastor Mark Dowdy, chair of the recovery group, says progress feels slow, but that’s because of how massive the recovery effort is.

“You have an idea what you want to do, but with the economy and other situations that are taking place, it just seems like it's digressing instead of progressing,” Dowdy said. “That’s the thing that we had to keep reminding ourselves, even though the tornado took out Cayce within 10 minutes, it's going to take us some time to get things built back.”

Cayce has held two community meetings for residents to share feelings about the process and learn from a variety of assistance groups.

Dowdy said residents are struggling with trauma, too.. School tornado drills have become stressful, triggering events. Dowdy says some teachers called the local emergency manager and asked for an alternative to the drills because students were already having a hard time with any storm rolled through town.

But Dowdy hopes the change in the seasons will bring hope.

“With springtime finally getting here and, instead of seeing toothpicks sticking up everywhere in Cayce, the trees are blossoming and leaving out and so I think that's kind of helped people begin to visualize, yeah, there is growth,” Dowdy said. “But it's going to take some time and that's always the hardest for us as people because we're impatient and we want things now.”

Every home that gets rebuilt or worked on boosts the community’s morale, Dowdy says. And people have hopes for what the city might look like in the future.

“It would be awesome that we could see just a little park or something for people just to come by and stop with a picnic table and maybe a little playground equipment for the children or something,” Dowdy said. “Just to remind us, that things can come out of bad, good things can come.”

Dowdy says most people trying to build back in Cayce are “home-grown”— couples and families that have been in the area for a long time and want to come back even though they’ve had to move away to nearby locations like Fulton and Union City.

“I think what will begin to be a landmark of progress will be hopefully next week, we'll start seeing some construction on these three new homes,” Dowdy said. “Then, as we get the news about the fire station, I believe that will be really something great because the way I understand the plans for the fire department is to have a safe room.”

Lily Burris
The Cayce Fire Department once stood across from a local electric business, but now there's only a concrete slab and a donated firetruck. Fulton County is still navigating the rebuilding process for this community.

Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin says the city will have to build a more expansive fire department because the destroyed building was constructed before modern standards.

“The building that we think we need is larger than what we had because of the expanded services that the building is offering and because of the change in regulations on the content of a fire and rescue building,” Martin said.

Insurance money won’t be enough to cover the cost of a new building, so Martin said the county is applying for funds set aside for tornado recovery by the state legislature this year. Local officials are also still searching for other state and federal funding.

“Once we get beyond all that, then we'll know how big the building is going to be and then we can turn our architect loose for final design and then put that out for bid.”

Beyond rebuilding, local officials want to do something that keeps people in the community, or even makes it more attractive to newcomers. Everytime someone in the community moves out, it impacts the area’s economic recovery. Dowdy and Martin say they’d like to build some type of park, though there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Most of the conversations that are being had in Cayce right now are still about the disaster in December, but local leaders are looking to the future of Fulton County as well. Dowdy says part of the long-term plan for the recovery group is to go dormant, but not disband, so they’re ready for any disasters in the area’s future.

“This is not the only time we're gonna have a disaster in western Kentucky,” Martin said. We will have other tornadoes.”

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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