Road to recovery: Bowling Green community rallies after deadly tornado
A global pandemic has made the past year-and-a-half stressful to say the least, and even Mother Nature screams sometimes.
“This is the worst tornado event we’ve ever been through," Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said at a news conference in Bowling Green Saturday afternoon.
Beshear grew emotional while speaking at the Bowling Green Police Department, hours after an EF-3 tornado packing winds of 155 miles per hour, swept through the city in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“It’s really hard and really painful," Beshear said, his voice cracking. "I spent eight hours wondering if one of my cousins was still alive.”
The Warren County coroner has confirmed 11 deaths, including children, and that number could rise as more victims are found under debris.
Members of a multi-generational family living under the same roof are counting their blessings after losing their home in the tornado. Eric Alford was sleeping about 1:30 a.m. when the storm came through his neighborhood.
“The alarms was going off on our phones and that woke us up and all of a sudden it sounded like a freight train," Alford recalled. "It was loud and vicious and it didn’t last long. It mowed through here pretty quick.”
The roof of Alford’s house on Ewing Ford Road was completely blown off and nearly everything inside was lost to wind or water damage. The home’s most valuable belongings were saved. Alford, his wife, and two sons, as well as his daughter-in-law and newborn grandchild were all able to make it to the home’s basement. At daybreak, Alford’s son, Travis, enlisted friends to help remove the material things.
“Right now, we’re trying to get clothes, valuables, out of the house because when the rain comes later, if it does, anything left in the house would be considered a total loss," Alford said. "And if anybody decides to come picking from it, we’re not trying to leave them much to take.”
Crystal Cavanah’s family was also spared in the storms. They live on Willow Way in the Briarwood neighborhood. A tree went straight through her daughter’s bedroom, but she wasn’t home.
“No, spent the night with a friend. Thank God!," Cavanah said.
Emergency sirens roared and chainsaws buzzed among power outages and completely uprooted tres along Willow Way, but neighbors rallied together to begin the cleanup.
Across town, a staple for decades on the Bowling Green bypass was another casualty of the tornado. The Cardinal Motel, built in the 1960s, is now owned by Ped Deasi who said the destruction was overwhelming.
“I feel like it’s a complete loss because you can see the whole roof come down and rooms are destroyed, the furniture inside all wet and stuff," Deasi pointed out.
Oddly, the iconic red cardinal statue in front of the motel was untouched by the tornado. Desai says he hopes to rebuild at the same location. His family lives in an apartment attached to the motel, and is among Warren County’s displaced residents.
The American Red Cross has opened a shelter at South Warren Middle School. Executive Director Jennifer Capps said it’s the worst local disaster she’s seen in her career.
“So today’s my 15th anniversary with the Red Cross," Capps said. "It’s horrific. You don’t even see this in movies. It’s heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine what these families are going through.”
The Red Cross is providing housing, food, medical, and mental health services. About 40 tornado victims came to the shelter during the day on Saturday and Capps expected more at nightfall.
She thanked the community for "non-stop" donations of food, clothes, diapers, and hygiene items.
“At this point, we’re just trying to organize it and make sure everything is grouped together. Then we’ll probably ask the community to stop with that effort and then go to making monetary donations," explained Capps. "I’m also asking them to make sure those blood appointments over the next few weeks are filled so that we get the blood on the shelves that we need.”
Western Kentucky Unviersity student Abby Haynes helped sort clothes at the shelter.
“We’re taking coats, separating coats between men’s and women’s, and different sizes," Haynes said. "It’s been really cool to see the overflow of things brought in, people wanting to stay and help sort, and just come together and help everyone in the community.”
Another volunteer at the shelter was Jessica Murray, a registered nurse at TJ Samson Community Hospital in Glasgow.
“I was seeing everything on social media and I reached out to the Red Cross and asked if they needed medical help and they said, 'Sure, come on down.' I’ve just been helping with basic first aid and helping people get medical supplies they might need to help them through this time," said Murray.
While treated only minor injuries, she was also on the lookout for signs of hypothermia as displaced residents toiled throughout the day in freezing and wet conditions, working in their yards and salvaging what they could from their homes.
Robert Valdivieso was okay physically, but emotionally, he was shaken. He and his wife live on Village Creek Drive just off Russellville Road. The events of the morning were on repeat in his head.
“There were winds and then the winds kept getting stronger. Then we heard debris hit the outside of the building. We heard windows crashing in and the roof peel off the top of the house," Valdivieso recalled. "At one point when we were hiding in the bathtub, I could feel the floor lifting up, so it was picking us up. I did fear for my life."
Valdivieso never thought he’d be in this predicament, but he was glad to find refuge at the shelter.
“I’m very impressed at how quickly people came together and made all this available," he stated. "I’m very blessed, and it inspires me to do the same when I have the opportunity.”
The tornado hit exactly two weeks before Christmas, and for Valdivieso, he understands now more than ever that it’s not what’s under the tree, but who’s around it. He added that it’s all about keeping things in perspective.
“There were three homes behind us completely gone and they pulled our neighbors out of a pile of rubble this morning," he said. "Other people have it worse than we do.”
While the road to recovery will be long, the sun will shine bright again on my old Kentucky home.