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Long road back: Bowling Green businesses adapting two months after tornado

Lisa Autry

Two months after a deadly tornado ravaged parts of western and southern Kentucky, businesses in Bowling Green are having mixed results getting back on their feet.  Stores and restaurants along the 31-W Bypass and Russellville Road were among the hardest hit, and are still unrecognizable in many places.

An always eye-catching pink and green store on the bypass is turning heads now for its blue tarps over the building that represent what this stretch of businesses has been through since the deadly Dec. 11 tornado.  The Beverly Hills Bargain Boutique was one of the lucky ones and among the first businesses to reopen. 

"We have roof damage, we’re gonna need new shingles," said co-owner John Horner. "We had a huge sign taken down by the storm. Then we have some air conditioning units that will need to be replaced, siding on the exterior, as well.”

To look at the outside, you wouldn’t know it’s business as usual inside. The clothing consignment store was able to reopen three weeks after the storm. Beverly Hills Bargain Boutique has called the bypass home since 1995. Horner says he’s grateful the building survived when his neighbors weren’t so lucky.

Credit Lisa Autry
Beverly Hills Bargain Boutique co-owner John Horner reopened his business on the 31-W Bypass three weeks after the tornado.

“It’s hard to drive to work sometimes and see all the devastation," he said. "For about the first week, there wasn’t a day I drove to work and didn’t shed a tear.”

A few doors down, a local Pizza Hut has reopened its drive-thru, while still closed to sit-down dining. Manager Caprice Steward said the business has come a long way after being shuttered for six weeks.

“This whole customer lobby entrance, this is what saw the most damage," Steward recalled. "The ceiling collapsed in this lobby area. The area you’re standing in now, you couldn’t have walked through here. This was impassable.”

Once the electricity was back on, Steward worked to get phones and computers restored, and replace all the food lost to having no refrigeration.  Luckily none of the ovens and fryers inside the kitchen were damaged, so that helped the restaurant reopen more quickly. 

Most of the outside is currently boarded up with plywood covering what used to be large glass windows. 

But Steward is staying patient as she waits on repairs.

“It’s gonna be a month or more before we get this glass. They said a month and it’s already been six weeks," she said. "But everybody needs glass and they all need it installed. We’re fighting with the same high demand. Everybody needs the same thing we need.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Pizza Hut Manager Caprice Steward has been feeding business owners and cleanup crews along the 31-W Bypass since reopening two weeks ago.

As a franchise of a major corporation,  Steward's Pizza Hut was able to reopen faster than small businesses nearby along the bypass. Steward has been feeding other business owners and cleanup crews at places not as fortunate.

“It’s almost like survivor’s guilt, even though we didn’t survive. But we opened first because we’re big and we have access to things. I feel like it’s my duty to support these folk as they’re rebuilding.”

The bypass is just a skeleton of what it was before the tornado. Some businesses were leveled and there’s nothing to reopen right now. But some are adapting to new ways of operating.  Paul’s Barbershop, a staple of the 31-W Bypass, was obliterated by the tornado.

“We got out our chairs out, a lot of our tools," said co-owner Travis Rossi. "We had a few things broken, but a lot of our big items, we were fortunate to get them.”

Paul’s Barbershop opened in 1959. Rossi’s grandfather worked there more than 50 years, so the business has special significance to his family. Determined to carry on, Rossi pivoted operations with the help of  a competing barbershop. He’s now working out of The Hairitage at the opposite end of the bypass, which wasn’t affected by the storms.

“Both of the guys that own the shop, they used to work at our shop years ago with our grandfather," Rossi explained. "So when they heard about the tornado tearing everything down, they were quick and kind to offer us a job over here.”

As for the future of his business, Rossi said he’s not received much help toward the recovery process.

“We contacted FEMA and the only thing they were willing to do is give us a loan. At the time, I didn’t even have a job and I was like, 'What am I going to do with a loan?' I don’t need to borrow more money,'" he said. "I haven’t heard anything from my insurance company. I filed a claim with them two months ago, still waiting to hear from my adjuster.”

Credit Lisa Autry
Paul's Barbershop co-owner Travis Rossi has moved operations to a competing barbershop after his business was demolished by the tornado.

Paul’s Barbershop sits on the corner of one of Bowling Green’s oldest shopping centers. What the owners of that center decide to do will determine if Rossi rebuilds there.

“I know they were getting bids on what it would cost to fix, and I’m sure they’re getting bids on what it would cost to build a whole new shopping center," Rossi said. "It’s been in our family for years, and it does have some sentimental value to us.”

Another business owner forced to make important decisions following the tornado is Miguel Lomeli, owner of Cabrera’s Mexican Restaurant on Russellville Road.  After the tornado devastated his brick-and-mortar facility, Lomeli bought a food truck and parked it next to what used to be his family business.

“It’s a hard time for me because in the food truck, when its raining and snowing, it’s a hard time to serve people because they have to stand outside and wait," Lomeli said.

Lomeli is now cooking up fajitas and queso in a fourth of the space he’s used to having.

“It’s been hard because it’s kind of small inside, but we’re doing good," he said. "All my customers now are the same customers I had in the building.”

While he’s not doing the business he was doing before the tornado, Lomeli said it’s enough to survive. He plans to rebuild at the same location, but likely won’t reopen until next year. The truck will stay parked outside what used to be a thriving business for the past ten years. Lomeli’s son, Alex, said the rubble that remains two months later is a reminder that better days are coming.

“Seeing it here gives us a form of motivation to keep going. It happened and its tough, but we’re all good. We survived and a lot of people didn’t," Alex said.  "We have to make the best of it, and that’s what my Dad is doing now. He’s a tough man and he’s making the best out of it.”

Many businesses face a long road back, a journey worth celebrating. Some businesses along the bypass are floating the idea of a special day dedicated to a grand reopening once the recovery is complete, although that celebration could be more than a year away.

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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