Until you’ve stood amid a miles-long trail of wreck and ruin where homes and businesses used to stand, and until you’ve talked to people still shell-shocked from having lived through 160-mph winds, it’s difficult to grasp the damage – physical and emotional – that a tornado does.
The devastation is immense. And it’s intense.
Last Wednesday we made our second tour of communities devastated by the tornadoes that ripped through Kentucky the previous Friday.
All around, we saw a buzz of activity: Neighbors cleaning up. National Guard on patrol. Emergency officials assessing damage. Families sorting through wreckage. And volunteers at well-organized temporary shelters distributing hot meals, clothing and water.
And most of all, we saw families and small-business owners struggling to find and put back together the pieces of their lives.
Their stories spoke of survival, of relief, of blessings realized, of shock and – most of all – of grim resolve.
In Laurel County, a father described being thrown hundreds of feet. He lifted his shirt to show cracked ribs and massive bruises, and he expressed thanks that his kids’ injuries were minor.
“We may have lost everything, but we’re still alive,” he said.
In Lawrence County, another father recounted how he had crammed his children and wife into a bathtub, then sprawled over it himself to create a layer of protection.
When their roof lifted off and the wind started to tug, his son grabbed his sister’s leg, and the father thrust his arm around his son’s waist.
In West Liberty in Morgan County, a man with tears in his eyes stood near the ruins of the United Methodist Church. Plans for a 100th anniversary celebration are long forgotten, he said, blown away with the church’s beautiful stained glass windows.
The church is the people, not a building, the man agreed. But he planned to look for some of the brightly colored shards anyway, to see if he could put a window back together.
Kentuckians have endured a lot over the last few years: The impact of a global economic recession. Floods. A crippling ice storm. Wind storms. Paralyzing snow. And two days after a dozen tornadoes roared through the Bluegrass – another series of tornadoes as ferocious and damaging as any in our history.
Communities in 47 counties – more than a third of the state – suffered damage, some from high winds and hail, but at least 19 directly from tornadoes that left some towns looking like war zones.
At least 23 people were killed, from a 14-year-old 9th-grade band member to a husband and wife 87 and 90 years old.
More than 300 people were injured.
The total number of buildings damaged beyond repair – or simply blown away – remains uncounted. But they include homes, apartment complexes, a firehouse, schools, a county courthouse, churches, banks and businesses of all kinds.
Like many around the state, we grieve for the victims. Their lives ended tragically, and we mourn with their families.
But amid the pain and suffering, amid the many tragic losses, we’ve seen much that leaves us with hope:
The courage of emergency workers who rushed to render aid, some even before the danger had passed.
The concern and energy of volunteers who have poured in to save possessions, to clean up, to provide shelter and the necessities of life.
The tireless efforts of overwhelmed local officials.
The thousands of people who have generously donated food, clothing and money (and more money is desperately needed).
We want to assure our Kentucky families that we are taking advantage of every local, state and federal resource for storm relief, and that our commitment – and the commitment of the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor – will not waver.
Among the many steps we’ve taken: We deployed a force of nearly 400 Kentucky Guard troops ... we spoke with President Obama personally to secure quick approval of federal assistance ... and we implemented executive orders to protect consumers from price gouging and to allow residents in affected areas to get emergency refills of prescriptions.
And numerous state agencies – representing law enforcement, emergency management, health care, transportation and other functions – remain on the ground.
As governor and lieutenant governor, we are in agony for our families. But we’re also in awe.
Kentuckians are known for their resilience, for their ability to stand strong no matter what the challenge, to recover no matter what the hurt.
That spirit is on display around this state, in communities from west to east.
And it’s embodied in another couple we met in West Liberty last week, a couple that paused from clearing debris out of their antique shop to voice hope and defiance.
“It’s been tough on us, but we’ll be back,” the man said. “We’ll open up again, and we want you to come to our grand opening.”