One year post-tornado, many displaced Bowling Green residents still not home for the holidays
One year after a deadly tornado ripped through parts of Kentucky, some Bowling Green residents still aren’t home for the holidays. From emergency shelters and hotels to travel trailers and temporary apartments, most have improved their housing situation somewhat, but many still lack a permanent place to call home.
As many spend their second Christmas in limbo, the city is building new homes as fast as conditions allow. But, meeting projected demand and affordability are major challenges.
Robert Valdivieso streamed Christmas music on his television at his home in the Northbrook Mobile Home Park off Louisville Road last week. That’s about as festive as he’s gotten this year. He hasn’t put up a Christmas tree or any decorations.
“It’s just not home," Valdivieso told WKU Public Radio.
Home used to be a three-bedroom ranch off Russellville Rd. Home today is a FEMA-owned mobile home with gray siding. It’s small and has just the very basics, but it’s more than what he was left with on Dec. 11, 2021. Valdivieso recalled waking up in the middle of the night inside his home on Village Creek Dr.
“We ran to the bathroom. I tried to close the door, it slams open and cracks, a bunch of debris comes in the bathroom," he said. "I just jumped on top of my wife who was already in the bath tub, grabbed on to one of the railings in the bath tub and just held on because the house was coming off the foundation and bouncing. We both felt like that was it, we were on our way out.”
Robert and his wife escaped with no injuries only to watch the bodies of their less fortunate neighbors as they were pulled from debris. The Valdivieso family spent the next five months in a hotel, including Christmas.
“I wasn’t in the Christmas spirit at all. I was more in the recovery mode and trying to keep myself together. It was very challenging because there were lots of traumatized people around," Robert Valdivieso said. "It just wasn’t home. It’s a year later and we’re still not home.”
But Valdivieso only has to look next door to see he’s more fortunate than others. His neighbor, another tornado victim, is in a travel trailer half the size of his FEMA-issued mobile home.
“I think about them often. It’s probably very small in there," said Valdivieso. "I was blessed to get this unit, and I hope everybody finds their permanent spot soon.”
One of Bowling Green’s international families was on the cusp of being home for the holidays when construction on their new place fell behind schedule. Samy Sourial, his wife, and three children lost their home on Creekwood Avenue when the tornado hit. Interpreting for her father, 12-year-old Miriam recalled how the Egyptian natives spent last Christmas at a hotel.
"We weren't really happy because we didn’t have our own house or apartment to celebrate in," Sourial said, interpreting for her father. "Usually on Christmas we make nice food and stay up all night and watch movies, but when we were at the hotel we couldn’t do that.”
They’ll spend this Christmas in an apartment they’re renting on Old Morgantown Rd. Even though it’s not home, the family will be able to practice more of their holiday traditions.
"It’s better than being at a hotel, but we don’t really like the place we’re at. We don’t feel like it’s the safest place," Sourial said. "It’s better than being at a hotel, but it’s not the best.”
The Sourial family is currently in a three-bedroom townhouse in Bowling Green’s Durbin Estates. They’re anxious to finally get the keys in a few more weeks. They’re one of ten families who will become homeowners through Habitat for Humanity. The non-profit launched an ambitious building blitz last summer to build ten home in ten weeks.Contractor and material delays pushed back the October move-in date to what’s now expected to be late January or early February.
“We usually build three houses a year, so while it’s a little disappointing, the fact we were able to more than triple our production was still pretty encouraging," said Rodney Goodman, executive director of the Bowling Green chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
The non-profit recently received a grant from the Red Cross to help build ten fortified homes next year that are disaster-resistant, as well as a community center with a storm shelter.
Habitat is playing a key role in Bowling Green’s efforts to build more affordable housing. Most of the 500 homes and apartments lost to the tornado were rentals occupied by the city’s low-income, as well as the immigrant and refugee community.The city of Bowling Green has approved $2 million in additional funding for groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Housing Authority to build more homes.
Affordability is one element of the city’s housing crunch that teeters on crisis. For the past two years, the city’s building capacity has been around 1,000 new units per year, but projections show Bowling Green needing 2,500 new housing options each year.
“But it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible to get to that number," said Ben Peterson, executive director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Planning and Zoning Commission. "There’s a lot of market factors going on. Greatly increasing land values, labor, workforce costs have gone up, and now building material supply lengthening the time it takes to build a house.”
Peterson says population growth and new industries are straining Bowling Green’s housing supply that was already short close to 800 units short before the tornado. The disaster claimed 500 houses and apartments, more than half of which have been recovered. While more than 1,000 new units have been constructed since the tornado, Bowling Green’s housing supply is still in a deficit.
For tornado survivor Robert Valdivieso, he’s ready to get his slice of the American dream once again.
“We went from the hotel to this trailer which felt really nice and I hope to have that same feeling again going from this trailer to our permanent home," Valdiviseo said. "I’ll be able to set up a Christmas tree and grow some vegetables outside. It will be ours and we can say we’re home. I look forward to that.”
Valdivieso has a back injury and is waiting on approval for disability payments, and once that happens, he and his wife plan to purchase a new house. The California transplant said the tornado solidified Bowling Green as home.
“Not going to be able to leave Bowling Green. I’ve already been through too much with Bowling Green to just pack up and leave," Valdiviseo said. "I really didn’t know too much about Bowling Green when I got here. They way the community came around us after the tornado was amazing. I’ve never seen a community come together like that before and I won’t forget it.”