MAYFIELD, Ky. (Reuters) – Neighbors across Kentucky offered shelter to friends who lost their homes to deadly tornadoes, strangers showed up with chain saws to clear downed trees and restaurants handed out gift cards for hot meals to those without water or power.
As the state dug out from a devastating string of twisters that killed at least 74 people and destroyed or damaged 1,000 homes, the acts of kindness arrived on Monday in ways both big and small.
Many people rushed to the aid of hard-hit Mayfield, a working-class farming and manufacturing community of 10,000 people in western Kentucky where residents said everybody knows one another and families often stay for generations.
Terra Utley’s co-workers from SRM Concrete sprang into action after the tornadoes destroyed her home there. On Sunday, they delivered firewood and a big pot of beef stew to Utley, a concrete truck driver at the company since June.
On Monday, nine co-workers helped her sift through the debris to save what was left of her possessions. They lifted Christmas gifts and family mementos from beneath the collapsed roof and walls, and pried open the doors to her car that was partially buried under her house.
“For them to be out here, taking time out of their day to come help me, it means the world to me,” Utley, 32, said over the whir of a chain saw.
Ricky Murphy, 41, said he barely recognized his hometown when he arrived from Louisville, Kentucky, immediately after the storm to check on his mother and siblings and pitch in on cleanup efforts.
The city’s water tower, long part of its flat landscape, had been leveled. Many of the historic buildings of its small downtown, some dating back to the 19th century, were reduced to piles of bricks.
By Monday, Murphy was helping hand out clothes, food and supplies outside Fairview Baptist Church, the Black church he grew up attending, where a makeshift donation center had sprung up.
“People are giving shoes, people give the clothes that they have, people give the money that they have, the resources, the homes or whatever,” he said of the generosity he had witnessed.
DONATIONS POUR IN
Similar scenes played out across Kentucky, where officials said it could take a week or longer to tally the toll of death and destruction from the tornadoes that tore through the state and several others late on Friday.
Governor Andy Beshear’s plea for volunteers to help wash dishes and clothes for displaced residents living at state park resorts prompted a flood of calls from around the country, said Andy Kasitz, assistant director of resort parks for Kentucky State Parks.
About 30,000 donations totaling more than $4 million have poured into a state tornado relief fund. The governor said the first tranche of money would be used to help cover funeral costs, adding each family would receive $5,000 and the state would ask funeral homes to cap the cost at that amount.
In Bowling Green, about 135 miles (217 km) east of Mayfield, restaurants had collected more than $50,000 in gift cards for free meals for tornado victims by Monday afternoon, said Josh Poling, owner of the Hickory & Oak steakhouse.
Lawyer Katina Miner, 40, said four black walnut and maple trees that toppled during the storms crushed half of her house near downtown Bowling Green.
After staying with friends for two nights, she arrived at her house on Monday to find about 15 people, some with chain saws and others toting fallen limbs, clearing her family’s property.
“Some neighbors, some from church and others we don’t even know,” Miner said. “We are truly blessed through all this. Things can be replaced. We are safe.”
Back in Mayfield, Tammie Bugg, 59, stood on a busy street corner on Monday with members of her church, First Baptist, pouring cups of coffee and bringing them to the window of every car and emergency vehicle that drove by.
Many of the recipients were exhausted emergency responders who had worked all weekend. The coffee was a small gesture that made them smile.
“And that’s what we need,” Bugg said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Peter Szekely; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Peter Cooney)