The Tornado hit Dawson Springs on Friday evening December 10, 2021. It was most likely one of a number of tornados that emerged along a 200+ mile line ranging from Northeast Arkansas through central Kentucky.
I began my photographic journey by driving the Western Kentucky Parkway and I-69 to Princeton. At Princeton I got on US 62 headed east toward Dawson Springs. About 10 miles outside of Dawson Springs in Caldwell County, I saw people clearing tree debris out of the highway. I pulled my car behind their truck and asked a man who appeared to be Mennonite if I could photograph what they were doing. “Sure, “ he replied. I asked if he was a Mennonite, and he said, ”I used to be Amish, now I guess you could say I’m a Christian.”
I went back to my car to get my camera and a man came up to me and told me I was on private property. He asked what I was doing, I told him, and he replied, “I think there’s enough of this already, we don’t need any more of what you’re doing.”
I drove off without having taken any pictures. A good start for the day. It made me a bit gun-shy. I remembered a conversation I’d had earlier that morning with Michael Swensen who was photographing in devastated Mayfield. I’d asked him about his reception, and he responded that everyone was fine with him, “this is Kentucky.”
I continued driving east on US 62. I came upon a hilltop that had been heavily hit, and saw what appeared to be a food prep station set up under a tarp. I pulled in, introduce myself, and asked if I could photograph. This was a family. They had all moved from Colorado and bought about 12 acres, house and barn. Land was too expensive in Colorado, so they began looking in Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Every time they found something they wanted it sold. Properties were selling in days. The property they bought had been under contract to a man from New Jersey. When he saw it, he decided that he was not able to take care of that much land. The real estate agent contacted the Colorado family, and they bought it immediately. They moved in in January of 2021. They brought their livestock with them: horses, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks. A newly wed husband and wife in their 30s, her mom and his dad. Mom was living in the house and dad was living in his RV.
Then came the tornado. It blew the roof off much of their house, the barn disappeared and all the fencing was blown away. They lost their ducks and chickens. The pigs collectively made a new nest for themselves on the edge of the woods.
I photographed an insurance adjuster who had come to assess the damage. He was a “disaster adjuster” who traveled to various disaster sites on behalf of the insurance firms that hired him. This was his first stop in Kentucky. His day job is that he runs a ceramics studio in Ohio.
Inside the house I photographed the bride’s mother. She had a large suitcase sitting atop a huge four poster bed. There was no roof overhead. A fan and some drywall were hanging from what had been a ceiling. Mom was folding wet clothes and putting them in the suitcase to be transported to where they were staying, be removed then hung to dry. As I photographed her she told me that her husband had died of Covid not long before her move to Kentucky. A number of other relatives had died, too. She began to cry. I apologized for photographing her during this display of emotion, telling her that these photos really reveal what she and others had been going through. It was OK with her. She wants to buy the Kentucky book when it is on the market.
The family, assisted by a cousin who had come up from South Carolina to help, had constructed a new corral made from all the fencing they could scavenge. Inside the corral were their horses and goats, who get along very well. The pigs were free ranging. The pigs all have names and are pets. They come up to be petted. One likes to have his belly rubbed.
I continued east on US 62 passing through a National Guard checkpoint. Only residents are admitted to the town. My press pass sufficed.
There’s devastation on both sides of the roads with electric line crews working to reestablish electric power to the city.
On the east side of town, on the north side of the road it looks like Hiroshima after the atom bomb. I park my car, take out my camera and start walking. People are pulling salvageable items out of homes that are partially standing. If there is no longer a home standing, they’re combing the debris field to see if they can find anything of value.
The debris field is like a river that flows in the direction of the tornado’s wind when it struck. I stood beneath a small hill. The debris field was full of wood part pieces from the destroyed homes. All of the wood was pointed in the same direction as the wind that dislodged it. Items that flew better lodged in the trees that had not been totally knocked over; most of their tops were gone. The trees, or wooded areas were full of sheet metal, insulation, drywall, and whatever could be blown into them.
People tell me their stories of what happened and how they survived. “We hid in the bathroom underneath the stairwell”, this from a family whose house was still partially there. “We went into the basement,” a lifesaver for those who had houses with basements.
I photograph an elderly couple who are putting jars of preserves in bins. The preserves are labeled by the year they were canned. They are being salvaged from the basement. The house is no longer there, just the basement and the concrete floor for the garage that no longer exists. The man told me that when they got the tornado alert they went into the basement. “Other people said the tornado sounded like a freight train. Our basement is so well insulated that we didn’t hear anything like that. I heard what sounded like a big bump and that was all. We figured that it was over so we came up from the basement and the house was gone.”
Driving through town I pass the Beshear Funeral Home. Our past governor, Steve Beshear’s father owned the funeral home. Two miles south of town is Beshear Lake.
Beyond the funeral Home I come across police vehicles from neighboring Morganfield. They are blocking a street. Across the street sitting on the steps of a partially damaged home is a man dressed as Santa Claus. He’s assisted by a mom and daughter dressed as elves. They’re passing out toys to whomever comes by, all donated by the citizens of Morganfield and the Morganfield police department.
Later in the day I come across a man in a red pickup truck. I asked him where he’s staying, and he said, “Follow me.” I follow him down narrow lanes that have been cleared of debris (mostly tree falls). We come to the top of a hill, and park on his lot near the remains of his house. Next to the lot are two bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment. He tells me that his building that housed the equipment blew away, as did a good portion of the house. He was living in the house with his 102-year-old mother. “When the tornado came, I laid my mother in the corner of the house (which is still standing), I laid on top of her and the dog came over and laid with us.” They all survived. I asked if I could photograph him with his house. “I hope you don’t mind the Trump flag?” I assured him that it was OK. He told me that the flag had blown off in the tornado. He found it in the refuse and put it back up.
He tells me that he used his bulldozers to clear the roads. He’d been a heavy equipment operator on strip mines before he retired. He likes heavy equipment, and that’s why he owns the dozers.
He leads me into town. On the north side of the street in downtown Dawson Springs is a man cooking on the sidewalk. There’s a handmade sign reading “Free Food.” Next to that is another sign reading “Not Need Clothes.” The man is a pastor of a neighboring community church. He’s working with a local Dawson Springs Pastor. Not only are they providing free food, but also clothing and are sheltering 30 people. I go inside their building. It’s dimly lit and stacked with food and clothing for distribution.
A caravan of vehicles drives through town pulling trailers from Sheep Dog Impact Assistance. This is a group of veterans and other first responders who provide disaster assistance amongst other services to their members.
Community outpouring of aid is everywhere. People assisting in cleanup. Several families from a neighboring community are standing by the side of the road giving away “Free Pork Chop Dinners.” The families had gotten together and decided to prepare meals. The pork chop dinners were in big zip lock bags handed out to passers-by.
It’s after sunset and I’m leaving town (there’s a 6 pm curfew in effect) and I see a group of Mennonites in what appears to be a food assembly line. I stop to photograph. They’re assembling free meals. Sloppy Joes being the main course. They come from the neighboring community of Crofton. There are four Mennonite churches in Crofton serving about 80 families. I ask one of the men where the money comes from to pay for the food they’re giving away. He tells me it comes from the local parishioners. This moves me. I ask if I can write a check? “We’re not asking for money,” he responds. I tell him that if it’s coming from their pockets to feed people, I’d like to help. I write a check to his church, which will be used for food distribution.
Media presence is notable. During the course of the day I’d run into a videographer and reporter from BBC. Later in the day I encountered several regional TV reporters. At the end of the day, I speak with a woman, Ms. Patel, who is a reporter for Spectrum News. She’s covering the Mennonites. She does all her reportage with an iphone. Shooting video, and her own on-camera commentary by pointing the iphone at herself. The next day I see her on TV while waiting for my appointment in the dentist’s office.
Night has fallen, curfew is about to take effect. I travel east on US 62, and find the road blocked. All traffic is diverted to SR 109 north.
It’s a long drive back to Louisville.
I think about Dawson Spring, Mayfield and the other communities that have been severely damaged by this storm. Build back? Is that the question? Many of these rural communities have seen significant loss of both people and the industries that supported the towns. Will they come back?
Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project
December 14, 2021