‘I’ve lived there for 26 years, in 26 seconds it was gone’: The cruel randomness of the Kentucky tornado

US

On the street corners in Dawson Springs, the Stars and Stripes still flutter, but the town has been flattened.

The destruction is hard to absorb.

It isn’t just buildings knocked over. Here, trees have been stripped, cars upturned. And it’s the granular damage which hits you: the bits and pieces of people’s lives, churned up and carried hundreds of metres.

Then there’s the cruel randomness of these tornadoes.

They are, it seems, literally as they would look in the movies – whirlwinds, twisters, narrow vortexes, which whip up lives in one spot yet leave the home literally next door untouched.

The house at the end of Elaine Drive is the Simpson family home. There we found Wayne and his son picking through what’s left.

The side of the house was hanging off. The missing part was their daughter’s bedroom. She was away on Friday night – a twist of fate and a blessing.

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But they were here. They survived and they don’t know how.

Despite the destruction to their home, Rhonda and Wayne Simpson say they are 'blessed' to have survived
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Despite the destruction to their home, Rhonda and Wayne Simpson say they are ‘blessed’ to have survived

“The tornado warning woke me up… We got into the bedroom closet right before it hit and if you look at what we have left, we’re blessed,” Rhonda Simpson told me.

“This house was well-built and we’re just thankful that we’re so blessed. Not everybody had that opportunity,” her husband Wayne said.

Nearby, I met Randy Norman, one of the first responders here. Many of them are volunteers, but they do now have help from beyond, for an awful job.

“I’m trying to coordinate the recovery system right now,” he told me. “We have quite a few people missing and so we’re still trying to, you know… you can see, they could be anywhere.”

He pointed at the roadside which resembles a war zone.

“We’re going up into the heart of the destruction now. It’s really bad up here.”

Trees have been stripped bare and trucks thrown around like toys
Image:
Trees have been stripped bare and trucks thrown around like toys

On Pine Street, it’s just awful. Up at the end of the road, we found the community recovering what they could.

Among them, I met Joe Loney.

“I woke up and the house was shaking. I heard what was like a train coming. Loud. And then the house was shaking violently. When the trailer hit my house it knocked me out of bed, hurt my shoulder, knocked me to the floor. It cut my hand, nicked my forehead…”

The trailer he described was a full size farm trailer which had been lifted up and carried into his house.

“I’ve lived there for 26 years,” Joe said… “and in 26 seconds it was gone.”

Although not tornado season, it's one of the strongest in US history
Image:
Although not tornado season, it’s one of the strongest in US history

A group of firefighters and volunteers walked past us. They are the team searching for the missing. This morning, here in this block, they found three who didn’t make it.

Observing all this, what strikes me is the resilience. There is such stoicism despite having lost everything.

And the thing is, this isn’t the season for tornadoes. Yet, somehow, in December, this one was the strongest in American history.

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