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Disbelief among the rubble: Mayfield community stunned by tornado’s destruction

Liam Niemeyer

Shattered glass lay on the tan carpet next to the Christmas tree, ornaments seemingly untouched. In the back hallway, a chilling draft blew in from the gaping hole in the ceiling as pink insulation flailed in the wind.

For Barbara Patterson, this was the home she lived in for 36 years on 6th Street in Mayfield, Kentucky. She raised her children here. She had finished remodeling her home after a fire last year had caused damages. All of that was gone in minutes.

“We got some precious memories. Had grandkids here, great grandkids,” Patterson said, her voice choking. “I’m just thankful we’re alive.”

Her son, Keith, sat on a truck trailer in the driveway and mentioned how small, close-knit his small town is. He said his wife lost an aunt in the storm, a tornado that bore a path more than 200 miles through western Kentucky. With the collapse of the local candle factory, he also lost a friend he went to school with.

“Devastating,” he said. “It’s just devastating is all I can say.”

At another home, large pine tree branches were splintered across the yard, a pink toy car laying on top of the pile. In front of a roofless apartment building lay a photo of a young individual, wearing the uniform of the local high school’s marching band.

It was in that apartment building where Eric Wilkerson’s son had ridden out the tornado. The side of the apartment is gone. So is his son’s bedroom. He had driven into Mayfield around 11 p.m. to check on his son, who had survived by hiding in a bathtub.

When he sees all the rubble surrounding his son’s apartment, he sees a forever changed community. A community that, for now, seems unrecognizable to him.

“It’s probably never going to be the same again here,” Wilkerson said.

In Mayfield’s court square, the local newspaper office’s windows were blown out, bricks covering the sidewalk. The local art gallery’s roof was ripped open, some artwork still displayed on the white indoor walls. The roof and walls of a local crossfit gym were also stripped clean, leaving barbells and other weights still sitting inside.

Beth Mohon was having a ‘Friendsgiving’ celebration at the gym just the night before.

“How do we even move forward? I mean, I don’t know if everybody does their little part? Every home, every business just digs in and does their part and just eventually we build back,” she said. “At this moment, it’s hard to wrap your brain around because it just doesn’t look like your city.”

For Mohon, it’s the damaged historic churches and county courthouse that help define a community – something that can’t easily be rebuilt.

“It’s hard to believe that it really happened to you,” Mohon said. “You see the destruction on TV. And the people always say, ‘you can’t really understand it unless you’re there.’”

Next door, a local business owner was trying to make sense of how to start over for the second time in less than a decade. Jason Acree opened his hydraulic hosing business six years ago, and five months into his operation another tornado damaged his building.

His family is OK and safe. Some of his other friends in Mayfield have lost their homes. He’s grateful. And he doesn’t view the destruction of his building as a permanent setback.

“It happens,” Acree said. “You gotta just keep moving forward I guess. I started over then. I’ll do it again.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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