No guarantee of federal aid for latest survivors in tornado-struck Western Kentucky

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

HOPKINS COUNTY — Raymond Emery has spent the past few nights leaning back in the front seat of his green minivan to stay close to his chickens and dogs. They’re among his few remaining possessions after a powerful EF-3 tornado, winds reaching 160 mph, ripped through his rented trailer the evening of May 26.

One of his dogs, Brandon, keeps a watchful eye on Emery. 

“I think he’s watching over me. I think people been mean to him in his life, but he’s a stray,” Emery said Thursday, noisy hens and roosters strutting around him. He found Brandon on the street about five months ago chasing his chickens and hungry, so he adopted him along with his other animals. 

Debris of the trailer.
The remains of Raymond Emery’s trailer as volunteers tear it apart, May 30, 2024. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

The 60-year-old hid under his coffee table as the trailer’s walls and roof collapsed on top of him. In the dark, he dug through the debris of what was his home searching for Brandon. 

Chickens eat corn on the ground.
Chickens eat the corn thrown by Raymond Emery next to a chicken coop. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

“I thought Brandon was gone because I couldn’t find him, but he was hiding in the woods somewhere,” he said.

This isn’t his family’s first loss from a powerful tornado. He said his sister lost her home when a long-track EF-4 tornado tore through the Hopkins County community of Barnsley in December 2021.

That tornado outbreak destroyed hundreds of homes across Western Kentucky in a more than 100 mile-track that devastated the cities of Dawson Springs and Mayfield. Seventy-four Kentuckians died in that outbreak. 

The Sunday tornado took a similar path as the 2021 tornado but veered slightly north of Dawson Springs, putting more scattered homes along rural roads in the path of demolishing winds. He said his sister’s rebuilt home was spared this time in Barnsley. Others in Barnsley were not as fortunate and are again facing the prospect of rebuilding. One person in Hopkins County died from the May 26 storms, among five Kentuckians killed across the state. 

Emery's dog, Brandon.
Raymond Emery found his dog Brandon about five months ago as a stray. Emery believes Brandon was abandoned because Brandon was already house trained. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Emery’s story of survival is one of several in a county recovering from its second violent tornado in less than three years. Neighbors who were spared in 2021 and came to the aid of others now face the shock and long journey of disaster recovery themselves — in a disaster that at least one official predicts will garner less attention and fewer resources than the earlier one.

Emery’s trailer wasn’t insured, and he’s not immediately sure what his nephew, who owns the property, has planned. His nearby family has offered him places to stay, but for now he’s decided to stay by his chickens. Feeding and taking care of them is what keeps him going. Brandon, too, stayed close by the tin- roofed coop, a chorus of rooster crows surrounding them.

“You got to keep going. You never know when time is going to stop,” Emery said. 

Finding support for the long path forward 

Tornado debris and snapped trees.
Snapped trees and tornado debris litter the landscape of rural Hopkins County. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

On Thursday, a crew of volunteers with an Illinois-based Christian youth ministry were tearing down the remains and rubble of Emery’s trailer one piece at a time, dishes and clothing stacked in piles next to metal and wooden shards. 

Rebecca Resillez with the Salem United Church of Christ said volunteers came to Hopkins County on Sunday expecting to work with a housing nonprofit on home rebuilds from the 2021 tornado, only to be thrust into cleaning up debris from the latest tornado.

Other volunteer groups handling debris removal and bringing supplies have come to Hopkins County in the days after the storms. A church in the unincorporated community of Charleston is serving again as a hub for packaged food, bottled water and cleaning supplies. 

“We opened the doors and God walked in,” said Margaret Purdy, a member of the Charleston Missionary Baptist Church who was ushering tornado survivors to various supplies. 

The church served as a resource hub for the area an entire year after the 2021 tornado. 

She said the impacts of this tornado may be different because homeowners hit recently may be more likely to have home insurance. But she believes local resources will be there for her fellow community members regardless. 

“You give me what I can do and I’ll do it to the best of my ability to do it, and that’s all of us,” Purdy said. 

The costs that will fall to individual disaster survivors this time are still being calculated as county and state officials push to open up federal disaster assistance to survivors. 

Nick Bailey, the emergency management director for Hopkins County, told the Lantern the damage to his county’s bridges, roads and other infrastructure plus the cost of cleaning up debris will total more than $4.5 million. 

Bailey is confident those costs will qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to repair public infrastructure. But qualifying for FEMA assistance to individuals is a different story. 

Having enough damage across the state to qualify for FEMA assistance to disaster survivors, particularly to help uninsured or under-insured Kentuckians, isn’t guaranteed. The Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, found that only about a third of disasters that are federally declared qualify for individual aid for disaster survivors. 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has previously urged Kentuckians to document damage and report it to local officials to make a stronger case to FEMA for the need for individual assistance. 

Bailey also said because of the much larger scale and timing of the 2021 tornado, compared to the latest tornado he generally expects less funding to aid survivors this time. He said relying on local resources, such as through the county’s long-term recovery committee, will be key moving forward. As of Friday afternoon, he said Hopkins County had 89 damaged structures with 29 completely destroyed. 

“We still have people that are going to need help. There’s going to be people that will likely fall through the cracks. But we’re going to do everything we can on the local level to support as many as we can and try to help as much as we can,” Bailey said. 

There is some aid coming to Hopkins County in the coming weeks: Kentucky Realtors, an association representing thousands of realtors across the state, announced Friday it was providing $200,000 to help recent disaster survivors pay for one month of housing expenses. Bailey said there’s also a large need for more volunteer groups to help clear debris in the weeks ahead. 

A near miss and hard memories 

Tornado shelter
The tornado shelter that Franklin’s family huddled into during the May 26 storm in Hopkins County. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Sharon Franklin, 70, lost her house in Caldwell County in the 2021 tornado. She then lived in the garage of her daughter’s home while dealing with an insurance company that wasn’t willing to build back her house. Her memories of that 2021 tornado never leave her mind, remembering the screams of family members as they huddled in the basement.

Eventually, she decided to move to a new home just north of Dawson Springs instead of rebuilding. 

Chairs inside the tornado shelter.
The small tornado shelter where Franklin, her family members and a chicken stayed for hours Sunday evening. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

“You just want to get somewhere and call it home again, and this is all I could find,” Franklin said.

Next to her ranch-style home in Hopkins County, she had installed a brand new concrete storm shelter only about a week before she had to use it. 

Seven people including her daughter, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren — along with a backyard chicken — all huddled in the shelter as the tornado came within less than a mile of her home. Trees fell on top of the storm shelter, trapping them for hours after the storm. 

While the pecan trees she loved in her yard had to be cut down due to damage, her new home is still intact. 

“People right up the road lost everything. I don’t know them but I still feel bad for them,” she said. “Nothing will ever be home anymore.” 

Utility workers installing new electricity lines.
Utilities install and repair utility poles in tornado-struck Hopkins County. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

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