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Pembroke still facing long road to recovery after December tornado

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Dustin Wilcox
The lot where a closed drug store once stood is being converted into the new headquarters of the Pembroke Fire Department.

Power lines have been reconnected, roads once blocked by fallen trees are now open, many damaged houses have received repairs and sawed-off stumps dot most yards.

Pembroke is in much better shape than it was in the wake of December’s tornado outbreak, but there’s a long way to go for the Christian County community.

Just across from Pembroke City Hall, a vacant drug store damaged during the tornado is being cleared to make way for the new fire department. Some cosmetic elements of the Rosedale Cemetery need to be replaced, and the elementary school is awaiting more permanent repairs. A nearly 200-year-old baptist church needs a new steeple, too.

Mayor Judy Peterson said there are some residents who are still dislocated. A few households in particular have had to relocate to state-provided campers on Spring Street until they can get back on their feet.

“I think it’ll always be a scar on the community when you ride through that you can see. I’ve heard a lot of comments how it just doesn’t look the same because we lost a lot of old trees,” Peterson said. “For people who have lived here all of their life, it hurt to see the old drug store tore down.”

While the destruction is saddening, the mayor is optimistic about the direction of the community.

“Overall, good comes out of bad. We have a community that’s tighter, I think, than we were. The community is smarter than we were before,” she said. “I think that, when somebody says a tornado is coming, everybody’s ears are going to perk up and pay attention.”

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Dustin Wilcox
Sawed-off stumps are a common sight in Pembroke.

Peterson said support came into Pembroke from all over the country in the form of food, clothing, furniture and money in the wake of the disaster. Christian County helped to restore power, and Hopkinsville to clear trees from roads. The nearby Amish community was also heavily involved in recovery efforts despite suffering damages of their own.

“It affected a lot of our elderly,” Peterson said. “They had so much debris on their homes, in their yards. And of course, we were pushing, ‘Clean it up; clean it up,’ while we had help here. But the help couldn’t go on private property, so you had to ask the citizens to bring it to the street to be picked up. This was a handicap for the community that was hit because they weren’t capable of doing it.”

The Pembroke Fire Department was perhaps most active within the city, serving as the central hub to open roads, check on homes and distribute food to residents for eight uninterrupted days after the tornado. Chief Nick Belair said outside organizations like Continental Mills and the YMCA donated food.

“I’ve never dealt with a tornado in my life. I’m not from here, so it’s new to me,” Belair said. “We just got overwhelmed on day two, so luckily, we had some contacts, and they donated a shed and tractor trailer. We were able to put all the donated goods, which we wanted to hand out to the community in there and get it organized.”

Facebook enabled the fire department to secure depleted resources from water to roofing materials within minutes of posting notices. The owner of Southern Tree and Debris Removal offered his services to open roads, clear trees off houses and evacuate trapped residents from their homes the entire week at no charge, though the fire department was eventually able to compensate him after reviewing its expenses.

“Fairview, Oak Grove and Crofton fire departments came on the initial response to help us into these residents homes, make sure they’re okay first off if they didn’t want to leave, and then offer them the ability to leave and give them a ride back to the firehouse,” Belair said. “It took all of us from the newest member all the way up to myself to do this, and it wouldn’t have been possible without everybody’s help.”

Christopher Hibeon, a 25-year-old who lives near Main Street, said he was shocked when he first saw the tornado damage in December.

“My neighbor's car garage had been blown over. The church steeple was knocked down. One of my good friends that lives down the road had an entire tree fall on his front porch and destroy his house,” Hibeon said. “It was kind of awe-striking, I guess is the best way to describe it. I really have no words for it than ‘wow.’”

Hibeon said the community quickly came together to help with damages. A group worked to remove the tree from his friend’s house and fix the roof, and others pitched in to clean up the church. A few country music singers also lent their time and energy to certain projects.

According to previous reporting by Nashville-based ABC affiliate WKRN, one family faced adversity when attempting to file an insurance claim to cover damages to their property.

Kerianne Wright weathered the tornado with her two-year-old daughter in her arms while her husband Justin was deployed in Iraq. As of March, the family is still living with tarps on their roof and have yet to see any payout from their insurance or mortgage companies, forcing them to cover various damages themselves.

“It makes me really angry because when you go through a disaster like this, you are incredibly vulnerable,” Kerianne told WKRN. “Do they understand what it’s like to live in a house that has, you know, musty carpet from water seeping in all the time with a two-year-old who wants to play with her toys on the ground?”

A check was mailed to the family the following business day after WKRN ran the story, and repair work has since begun on their home.

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Dustin Wilcox
Some debris remains where the tornado hit the worst.

Pembroke Elementary School sustained significant damage to its roof and several heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units during the tornado. As a result, students were sent home for remote learning for the remainder of the winter semester.

Josh Hunt, assistant superintendent of Christian County Public Schools (CCPS), said maintenance crews were able to quickly install a temporary roof, and will take care of the HVAC units next.

“As soon as these students are done for the summer, a roofing crew will come in and put the new roof down,” Hunt said. “Our biggest concerns are supply chain issues, just like everybody else. Hopefully, we can stay on timeline and be complete with that project before we go back to school in the fall.”

Hunt added engineers have examined the building and confirmed its continued integrity, but the district is still facing approximately $2 million in damages. Some of this comes in the form of technology losses that can be addressed with insurance.

“We were fortunate, when we came back to school, there were some classrooms that we could relocate, moving around special classrooms like music and whatnot. But we were able to get all of our regular classroom teachers back in a regular classroom for normal class studies,” Hunt said. “With those couple front rooms that have to have some pretty major work done to them, that’s going to take place all in the summertime so it’s not people working in there while the kids are in school.”

Hunt commended state government leaders for pushing through approval for remote learning days, as well as the faculty and staff for their intensified efforts following the tornado.

“You don’t want to see it happen to any school, but – if it had to happen to one – Pembroke is a place that will rally around and get the job done,” Hunt said. “If anything, we were having to turn people [away] those first couple of days … people were ready to strap their boots on and come to work and do whatever it took to get their school back.”

Five months after the tornado, the Pembroke Fire Department is still focused on clearing the remaining debris from yards and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get residents back on their feet.

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Dustin Wilcox
The Rosedale Cemetery near the elementary school will likely receive some cosmetic repairs in the next two weeks.

“Even though the major, ‘Hey, we need this and that,’ is gone, the community still does have a lot going on, and they’re still going to need help,” Belair said. “These people don’t have insurance, so they’re not relying on anybody but us. If they call and ask us today, we’re going to give them everything we can give.”

Pembroke Mayor Judy Peterson noted working with the FEMA has gone smoothly, as it will likely address the damaged monuments, fencing and trees at the cemetery in the next two weeks. Persistent rain has been the most pressing impediment so far. Even so, she said the progress made toward tornado recovery in Pembroke has been very good.

“What you run into back in that area where it hit the worst, generations had lived in those houses,” Peterson said. “There was no insurance because maybe the house wasn’t in their name. Maybe it was in a family name from three generations ago but passed down. So you run into some pitiful situations. That’s where we could step in with volunteer money. And then, when these campers became available, that was the answer.”

Peterson said her future goals are to install a tornado siren that can be heard throughout her part of the county and a safe house where residents can seek refuge.