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One year after historic tornado, conversations turn to helping Bowling Green's international community weather next disaster

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Lisa Autry
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The Dec. 11, 2021, tornado decimated homes on Moss Creek Avenue in Bowling Green.

Sunday will mark one year since a historic tornado claimed lives and decimated portions of Bowling Green.

The storm disproportionately impacted the city’s diverse international community and left many resettling all over again.

Conversations are underway about the next disaster and how to better serve Bowling Green’s immigrants and refugees when the fury of Mother Nature strikes again.

It's an unusually warm December week, much like it was this time last year, and some shell-shocked Bowling Green residents may be experiencing a sense of deja vu.

"Who can I call?"

This time last year, temperatures were in the 70s two weeks before Christmas. Hours later in the middle of the night, a powerful EF-3 tornado ripped through the city, leading to the deaths of 17 people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

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Lisa Autry
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Afghan refugee Sodaba Rahamety reflects on the Dec. 11, 2021 tornado. Her family had resettled in Bowling Green only months prior to the disaster.

Sodaba Rahamety, 23, and her family from Afghanistan, had just resettled in Bowling Green when their home on Nutwood Street took a heavy hit.

“The night the tornado happened we took shelter in our hallway. I cannot forget my mother looked us and said, 'Don’t worry, everything will be okay, we’ll be fine,'" recalled Rahamaty. "I could see the desperation and hopelessness in her eyes. At that point, I took my phone and looked at it. 'Who can I call? I have no friends here. I have no family here. Who can I call?'"

“Right now, the warning system is mostly in English and the second language would probably be Spanish, but Bowling Green has several languages, and I think if we can adjust our communication to match the demographic we have here, that would be helpful," said Albert Mbanfu, head of the Bowling Green-based International Center of Kentucky.

Right after the tornado struck, disaster responders jumped into action, but helping families who speak a combined 90 different languages proved challenging.

“Probably the biggest challenge was the language barrier, the trust issue, making sure they trusted the people that wanted to help them and care for them," said Jennifer Capps, executive director of Bowling Green chapter of the American Red Cross.

Capps' first instinct was to call Leyda Becker, the city’s international communities liaison. She advocates for those who speak little to no English and come from countries including Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Vietnam. Her knowledge of Bowling Green’s diverse population was put to the test.

“We have multiple means and outlets of getting the information out to the public, but when you have to take the information and convert it into so many different languages, and having to reach the people you want to reach, that’s where the challenge is really magnified," Becker explained. “I recall the mayor asking me to come to what was labeled ground zero to go door to door to tell people there was an emergency shelter and they didn’t have to stay in their home with no electricity and be in the cold, but reaching those individuals, we just didn’t have good means of doing that.”

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City of Bowling Green
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Leyda Becker, a native of Venezuela, is the internal communities liaison for the city of Bowling Green.

Becker is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Venezuela and fluent in Spanish. But to communicate with those speaking other languages, she relied on the city’s on-demand interpreter service. City employees can access a hotline and video service with interpreters 24 hours a day. However, Becker said many community partners weren’t prepared to interact with the foreign-born population.

"I got a call to go to the SOKY Fairgrounds where the Jaycees had set up a shelter at the pavilion and they were giving away donations, and they’re like there’s an influx of people coming, but we can’t communicate with them," Becker said.

"So many times we’re relying on the kids to translate stuff during very dark times, and that’s hard on the kids, so we want to avoid that," said Jennifer Capps of the Red Cross chapter in Bowling Green.

Some ideas taking shape aimed at helping refugees, immigrants during severe storms

With the focus very much still on the recovery phase, conversations about responding better to the next disaster are just beginning. Bowling Green has no community storm shelters within the city limits, but funding has been approved to build five, two each at Lovers Lane Park and Preston Miller Park, and one at Pedigo Park. Also, Habitat for Humanity has received funding to build a tornado shelter at Durbin Estates where several new homes will soon be occupied by tornado victims.

The International Center is now incorporating information about natural disasters into its orientation program for newly arriving immigrants and refugees.

In addition, Warren County was one of eight counties in the nation recently selected for a pilot program by the American Red Cross aimed at helping areas that have experienced natural disasters and experience vulnerabilities like a lack of housing and language barriers. Teams are meeting with area non-profits, including The International Center and Refuge BG, to better prepare for future disasters.

"We hope to come back together to develop a plan that is culturally and linguistically appropriate," said Becker. "That’s my hope and my wish for the future. Not that I want to live through this again, but having dealt with COVID and a tornado back to back, I want to be prepared.”

Considered a haven for refugees, many have arrived in Bowling Green after escaping wars and persecution. It’s supposed to be a place where they breathe a sigh of relief. Advocates are hoping to give the international community that same sense of security the next time Mother Nature wages war.

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.