After the victims have been recovered. After power has been restored and roads cleared.
After The New York Times and "Good Morning America" move on to other stories.
After visits from the governor and First Lady, towns recovering from a natural disaster face a grueling, monotonous, years-long effort of cleanup, recovery and rebuilding outside the spotlight. There are, after all, no shortage of immediate crises to draw the country's attention.
Bowling Green, Kentucky is past its "attention" phase following a pair of tornados which hit the area on December 11, 2021, resulting in 16 deaths. One other Warren County resident would die shortly after from a heart attack suffered during initial cleanup efforts. The historic storms resulted in 77 deaths statewide and 90 across multiple states during a terrifying outbreak which led national news broadcasts for days.
"We have transitioned out of that emergency response phase into that long term recovery phase," Marieca Brown, the City of Bowling Green's temporary coordinator for volunteer relief, said.
Brown and her husband have lived in Bowling Green for 36 years; their house just outside of town was spared by the December 11 tornados and another which, remarkably, touched down in the area on New Year's Day.
The retired police officer remembers tracking the deadly storms on her husband's fire department radio scanner.
"You could hear dispatch and you knew exactly the direction that the tornado was taking because you can hear it: Browning, Rock Field, Blue Level Road," Brown said. "When you heard that it hit Moss Creek, you knew it was bad just from just from listening to it."
Emily Angel is a single mother of three who has lived in Bowling Green her entire life. Her family was also spared the worst of the tornado's devastation. With the storm's arrival in the pitch-black overnight hours, her memories are similarly connected to sound.
"We went to bed knowing Mayfield (160 miles west) had gotten hit really hard, I'd seen some pictures of their downtown," Angel, who now coordinates the City of Bowling Green's donations center, said. "I brought all my kids into my bedroom with me and then I remember that all of our phones–all the alerts going off–and sitting up in bed, hearing everything outside, ominous sounds, all this weather and the wind and the thunder and the (tornado sirens). It was a very eerie sound to know what Mayfield had gone through–and we get storms all the time–but I remember laying and bed and thinking this is different."
No one could have imagined how different.
An entire family of seven was killed –father, mother, four children and a grandmother.
Seven children were killed on the same street in one of the hardest hit areas.
An infant lost her life . As did a 98-year-old and a couple married 50 years who died side-by-side.
Protected by Trees
Even for those who didn't experience the tragic loss of life or home, the storm's impact proves inescapable.
"The skyline is different. There are historic parts of town that will never look the same," J.T. Troxell, who's lived in Bowling Green since 2014, but was out of state the night of the storms, said. Troxell has been working to clear downed trees and debris since the first storm and is now also helping coordinate volunteers. "We lost 100, 150, 200-year-old trees. There were trees that I didn’t have a saw big enough to cut around cutting on both sides."
Bowling Green's trees resulted in widespread roof and limb damage, but they played a more critical role in protecting the same neighborhoods.
"What we consider ground zero where this (tornado) hit was a new subdivision. There were no trees in this subdivision and houses there are gone–they totally disintegrated," Brown explains. "When the tornado hit these older, more established, historic type residential areas that had these huge trees–they caused so much damage because they were so big and they fell on things–but by the same token, those trees are what saved town, they really are. You can see when you look at the drone footage and you understand how the ground lays, you can tell exactly where (the tornado) hit and jumped, and the trees pretty well kept the tornado up in the tops of the trees."
"There are places I’m seeing now that I’ve never seen before because they were covered by trees," Angel added. "It’s a little depressing when you drive through and you know what it used to look like and it takes the wind out a little bit. You’ll be feeling like we’re doing good and then you drive through those areas and you’re like, 'oh, man;' it’s a big scar, a big scar."
Because of the trees and the area's topography, the December 11 tornado skipped across town like a rock over water. Homes in its path were both obliterated and left unscathed.
"I was talking to a volunteer that was asking for some assistance with getting the trees out of her backyard and we were on the phone for an hour because she was telling me that she felt guilty that she was in the path, but didn’t get nearly as much damage as other people," Brown recalls. "Yet she was devastated and she felt guilty for being devastated that she had all these trees and a very nicely landscaped yard; she felt bad that she was so terribly upset when all she lost was some trees."
Lesser effected residents experiencing survivor's guilt is something Brown, Angel and Troxell have all witnessed or felt.
"(Survivors) are coming in telling us their story, telling us what happened; it’s heartbreaking to hear it and then you feel guilty all over again hearing it," Angel said of her work aiding the effected, noting that many people experiencing survivor’s guilt are not taking advantage of counseling resources the city has provided to help them. "A lot of people don’t seek it out due to fear that if they take it, they may take (help) away from somebody else."
While talking is an important step in recovery, so is doing, and that's what Bowling Green is most focused on now.
"I think volunteering is a source of therapy," Angle said. "I know for me, it helped me work through my (grief)."
How to Help
The days and hours following a natural disaster are filled with heroic images of rescue and recovery. Survivors pulled from rubble. Heavy machinery clearing roads. National Guardsmen distributing water, food and clothing to the suddenly homeless. Massive loads of supplies from hastily organized volunteer drives hundreds of miles away arriving via semitruck.
Bowling Green is through that. The help Bowling Green needs most now comes from the most mundane of tasks
"Go to Walmart, get trash bags and just go pick up litter on the side of the streets," Troxell advised for anyone from out of town looking to lend a hand.
"This tornado scattered trash, it shredded houses, there's so much of it," Angel said. "If you want to do something that’s directed to help a disaster relief, go pick up trash. Anything that you can do to help clear that scarred land helps that community."
The www.wearebgstrong.com website provides contact information for those looking to volunteer from outside the area. Operation Pride is a local beautification organization also available to help direct would-be volunteers to pitch in with ongoing cleanup. Donations, of course, are also welcome .
A couple hours spent volunteering could act as the feel-good exclamation on a sightseeing day trip or weekend getaway to Bowling Green. Located just over an hour's drive north of Nashville on Interstate 65, the town's tourist hotspots were spared by the tornados.
Visiting Bowling Green
The National Corvette Museum remains open. The Bowling Green Assembly Plant right next door has produced every single one of the iconic sports cars since 1981. Damage from the December 11 tornado resulted in over 100 brand new Vettes having to be scrapped , but the museum was unaffected.
Mammoth Cave National Park 20 miles away , the largest known cave system in the world, also remains open as a world-class tourist destination attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
After a day helping out picking up storm debris, treat yourself at Anna's Greek Restaurant or Hickory & Oak Restaurant. If casual dining is more your speed, try Lisa's 5 th Street Diner for breakfast, Teresa's Restaurant for lunch and Smoky Pig BBQ for dinner.
For an agrotourism experience sure to satisfy any sweet tooth, visit Chaney's Dairy Barn , a working farm with the best ice cream in Kentucky. Tours of the farm are offered along with free weekly outdoor 'Ice Cream and a Moovie' nights throughout the summer. Not sweet enough? The Pie Queen of Bowling Green, Brie Golliher , gives tourists a taste of her incredible homemade and unique pie creations such as pimento cheese pie inside the Boyce General Store.
The close-knit community of Bowling Green has been rocked. The people there are resolute, however, in their commitment to rebuild. That doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate a little help. Anyone able to stop by, lend a hand with the cleanup, and remind folks there the rest of the nation hasn't forgotten about them would be welcomed as a friend.
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