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Post-tornado housing demand presents challenges, tough decisions for Bowling Green's displaced

Than Hlaing (second from left) and his family recently moved back to their home in Bowling Green's Creekwood neighborhood after being spending two months in a hotel following the December tornado.
Lisa Autry
Than Hlaing (second from left) and his family recently moved back to their home in Bowling Green's Creekwood neighborhood after being spending two months in a hotel following the December tornado.

Hundreds of Kentuckians displaced by the December tornadoes are still living in hotels, state park lodges or homes in need of repairs. Housing is in limbo for about 50 Bowling Green residents, but a housing shortage and affordability remain obstacles.

Home Sweet Home has taken on a very literal meaning for Than Hlaingand his sister Tan Win. They were born in Thailand but have called Bowling Green home for the past 14 years.

They live on Moss Creek Avenue, one of the hardest hit areas from a tornado outbreak that spanned 200 miles in southern and western Kentucky, and took nearly 80 lives in the Bluegrass State. The roof of the modest house was blown off in the early morning hours of Dec. 11.

"Yeah, we lost the roof of the house," said Hlaing. "Our living room was all messed up with cracks on the ceilings and walls. It happened because this door burst out. A huge wind came in messed up everything all around this living room, as well as window cracks. The whole kitchen was torn out.”

Than is a senior at Warren Central High School. San works at a warehouse just over the state line in Tennessee. They live in Warren County with their three siblings and mother who doesn’t speak English. The family spent two months living in a hotel provided by the American Red Cross, but recently moved back home.

"All the trauma that happened, when I first moved in, it felt weird," Hlaing recalled. "It didn't feel like home to be honest."

The family got their home to live-in condition, and has since been slowly remodeling. What was once an aging house with yellow siding now has fresh, gray siding, new windows, and a newly rebuilt garage.

“Garage is still in the process of being constructed," Hlaing pointed out as he walked inside. "When the tornado hit this garage, water was leaking in, it was a huge mess.”

Hlaing walked through the living room and kitchen.

“It was actually carpet before, and now it’s like wood, hard floor," he said with a sense of pride.

In his bedroom, an inflatable mattress lies on the bed frame. It's a sign the repaired home is starting to come together, though it will take time.

The living room is sparse with only a single couch, but the family has insurance, which Hlaing says will cover the cost of replacing most of their belongings. He realizes his family is fortunate.

“I actually had a friend of mine who just lived one house down. His whole house was wiped (out).”

Hlaing's house on Moss Creek Avenue is starting to feel like home again, but he says the neighborhood just isn’t the same.

"Before the tornado hit, we usually had a lot of kids playing around this neighborhood in the streets. After the tornado hit, we don’t see that anymore," Hlaing said. "We had some neighbors who don’t want to live here because of the trauma, and so they decided to move somewhere else."

Not everyone is as fortunate as Than Hlaing and his family. About 50 Bowling Green residents are still be housed in hotels. Twenty-five people are staying at the local Housing Authority, and many others are believed to be living elsewhere in some other form of temporary housing. Their road back home is likely lengthy and full of curves.

Ronnie Pearson heads the Warren County Emergency Management Agency. “It’s gonna take time," he said. "We usually anticipate at least 12 months, and to be honest, it could be a two-year process to get a lot of these built back.”

In Bowling Green, 475 homes received moderate to severe damage in the Dec. 11 tornadoes. Of those, 65% of those were rentals, but the city’s occupancy rate for apartments is around 97%.

The units that remain are unaffordable for the displaced, many of whom are low-income and refugees. Ben Peterson heads the city-county planning commission and says rebuilding apartments with comparable rent will be nearly impossible.

“You cannot build a new apartment and rent it for less than $800 plus a month," Peterson said. "So if someone was paying $750 or less for their home or apartment, and now that product is gone and no longer available, what’s their option? Therein lies the difficulty.”

More apartments are under construction, but affordability, supply chain issues, and labor shortages, are all compounding the situation.

That's tomorrow in part two of this series.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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