Three weeks ago today, the sky fell on Kentucky and surrounding states. The wave of tornadoes that swept over the region revived memories of another such disaster that befell us April 3, 1974, bringing widespread death and destruction to this commonwealth and its neighbors.
Tornadoes are discriminatory storms. It’s not unusual to see total devastation in some places while nearby locations are left virtually untouched. Frankfort and Franklin County were among the lucky ones this time, escaping with little more than damage from golfball-sized hail (which is not to be shrugged off).
Here and elsewhere in central and eastern Kentucky, people who came through the storms relatively unscathed have not forsaken those who were less fortunate. State Journal reporter Katheran Wasson wrote of Cinderella’s Closet – a Frankfort charity that gives free prom dresses to poor teens – dipping into its reserve of 500 gowns to outfit about 200 girls at Morgan County High School. The school itself was not seriously damaged by the March 2 tornado that plowed through West Liberty, but some of its students lost their homes and many others were deeply traumatized by what they witnessed. The State Journal’s Keren Henderson wrote about the Saturday she volunteered to help clean up the debris in West Liberty.
This week, the Kentucky legislature took up a plan to exempt tornado victims from paying sales taxes on the materials needed to rebuild after the storms. The 6 percent cost savings could be critical not just for property owners but for towns like West Liberty where some residents might be tempted to move out rather than rebuild. Communities, as much as individuals, occasionally need encouragement to pick up the pieces after disaster. The bill won House approval on a 96-0 vote Thursday and the 21 counties included in President Obama’s federal disaster declaration would be eligible for the assistance. Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said his chamber would probably vote on legislation as it comes of the House, perhaps adding changes to incorporate relief plans the Senate itself has discussed in the aftermath of the storm outbreak.
Back at Cinderella’s Closet, coordinator Amy Nance was still trying to comprehend the enormity of what young people, especially, have gone through in West Liberty. “Their town has completely changed,” she said, “and it will never be the same ... When you drive through their downtown area, it’s completely gone – there’s no building that’s untouched.”
In Frankfort and Franklin County, downtown was spared by the 1974 tornado, which spent its wrath on suburban and rural neighborhoods. But the experience is much the same wherever twisters touch down. Lifelong presumptions of security and climatic stability evaporate in an instant, replaced by visions of unimaginable loss and horror that will haunt survivors for years to come. It’s something no one should have to endure, but many do.
The best government and philanthropists can do in these times of tragedy is let storm victims know they’re not alone – and back up the message in material ways that keep giving long after the storm clouds depart. The compassion we extend today could be the same we’ll need ourselves tomorrow.