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Kentucky state parks pivot from vacation spots to bustling shelters for tornado victims

Lisa Autry

Many western and southern Kentucky tornado victims will not be home for the holidays. In fact, Christmas will be very different this year. 

This month’s storms left many in Bowling Green, Dawson Springs, Mayfield and other affected areas homeless. Many who lost their homes will spend the holiday at state parks after Governor Andy Beshear turned some of them into free emergency housing for tornado victims. 

As the sun was setting over the hills of Dawson Springs on Tuesday, the lodge at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park was filling up for dinner.  A place for rest and recreation is now in survival mode.

“Everything’s been a little chaotic, but it’s been a good chaotic," said Park Manager Melissa Voges.

Voges pointed out the dining room that looks more like a Walmart, packed with donated food, toys, clothing, diapers, and hygiene items.

"These donations, they started coming in the day after the storm, and they’re coming in from all over the United States," Voges explained. "Anything anyone could possibly need, they can get it here.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park in Dawson Springs, KY is providing housing and three meals per day to residents displaced by tornadoes.

The park currently has 124 guests, all residents of Dawson Springs displaced by this month’s tornadoes.

"We’ve got 24 rooms and 13 cottages. They’re all full," Voges said. "Then we have people in our campground that are volunteering, staying at the campground in their personal RVs.”

Taffany Lowery is staying at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park with her boyfriend and parents. Her home on Hall Street was completely destroyed.

“We just got our home in November, so it’s all still a shock," Lowery told WKU Public Radio.

On top of that, she’s eight months pregnant.

“I was able to salvage most of my baby stuff," she said. "There’s stuff that was sentimental that I can never get back, but it’s okay because me and my family are okay.”

As of Wednesday, state parks were providing housing and food services for 600 displaced Kentuckians and 169 first responders.

Credit Lisa Autry
Chris Knight, who lost his home in Dawson Springs during the Dec. 11 tornadoes, spoke to WKU Public Radio in the lodge of Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park.

In Dawson Springs, the storm ravaged much of the town's low-income housing, which is where Chris Knight called home. He’s disabled but managed to hunker down between his washer and dryer, and rode out the tornado. He was in the dining room where barbecue was on the buffet Tuesday night. Without the park, Knights said he doesn’t know where he’d be staying.

"It’s a blessing," Knight said. "I’ve got plenty of friends, but they’re homeless too.”

Marlene Kimmel, 65, finished eating, grabbed her cane, and headed toward the room where she and her husband are staying. The couple lost their home on Keigan Street. They rode out the storm in the hallway.

"When it hit, it sounded like a train. Then the roof starts ripping. You hear all the wood cracking and popping, and then it’s gone," Kimmel recalled. "When the roof left, all the drywall on the ceilings fell down all around us. We started praying, ‘Lord, lay your hand on us,’ and he did.”

The couple was rescued from the debris by a police officer. The Kimmel’s were in a new house, and it was supposed to be their forever home. They plan to rebuild on the same corner lot.

Credit Lisa Autry
Lifelong Dawson Springs resident Marlene Kimmel, displaced by deadly December tornadoes, is temporarily living at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park.

Amy Bardin works as a server at the lodge. While she’s usually taking care of others, she’s now on the receiving end.  She, too, lives in government housing that was destroyed by the tornadoes.  She took cover in the hallway of her home on Clarkdale Court, along with her 22-year-old son.

“He handled himself very well. Myself, not so well," Bardin said. "I was on the phone with my mom and I was telling her I think I’m going to die tonight. It was very traumatic.”

Bardin now not only works at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, but also calls it home. Tornado survivors like her are guaranteed a one-month stay. After that, she’ll be moving to an apartment in Hopkinsville. Bardin says she eventually wants to move back to Dawson Springs and rebuild where her home once stood. She pulled out pictures on her cell phone.

"That’s my son’s bedroom. It’s completely covered in drywall and insulation. It looks like a tornado hit it, right? Here’s the living room. The Christmas presents, some of them were ruined," Bardin pointed out. "I’m more grateful for Christmas now than I have ever been in my life because I made it out alive.”

Amanda Fowler also works at the park as the dining room supervisor. Her trailer on Highway 109 in Dawson Springs wasn’t damaged, but she’s staying here anyway, because right now, it’s all hands on deck.

“We’re feeding a lot of people right now," Fowler said. "It’s good to see people come in and smile, fill their belly and go back to a place they can stay warm at night.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Amy Bardin, who works as a server at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, is one of 124 Dawson Springs residents staying at the park following tornadoes that destroyed their homes.

Fowler’s six-year-old son, Jackson, is running around the dining room, seemingly unbothered by the recent upheaval. For him, staying at the lodge is more like a vacation. In fact, he just saw Santa.

When asked what he wanted for Christmas, he quickly exclaimed, "Toys! A PS5 and a new wrestler from WWE.”

Communities like Dawson Springs are showing resiliency this Christmas in a season of grief, gratitude, and small moments of joy.

Kentucky is home to 45 state parks, including 17 resort parks. The commonwealth is utilizing 7 resort parks to house displaced families.

Here's a breakdown of which state parks are hosting tornado victims and how many rooms were vacant as of Wednesday, according to the Kentucky Department of Parks.

Kentucky Dam Village

  • 4 rooms available
  • Park currently housing 137 displaced Kentuckians and 143 first responders

Kenlake State Resort Park

  • 10 rooms available
  • Park currently housing 141 displaced Kentuckians and 8 first responders.

Lake Barkley State Resort Park

  • 9 rooms available
  • Park currently housing 164 displaced Kentuckians and 16 first responders.

Barren River Lake State Resort Park

  • 46 rooms available 
  • Park currently housing 30 displaced Kentuckians.

John James Audubon State Park

  • 3 rooms available 
  • Park currently housing 0 displaced Kentuckians.

Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park

  • No rooms available
  • Park currently housing 124 displaced Kentuckians.

Rough River Dam State Resort Park

  • 50 rooms available 
  • Park currently housing 4 displaced Kentuckians.
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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