In Mayfield, Kentucky, storm warnings had been coming for days, then came radar observations of a rotating storm of debris to the south, and finally urgent alerts to the imminent strike of a severe tornado.
In the seconds it took for the “quad-state” storm to pass over the higher elevations of the city soon after midnight on 10 December, the notional separation between the man-made and natural world was effectively obliterated – as were large sections of Mayfield
Damage to life and limb caused by the vast and powerful tornado that passed over Mayfield was epic and profound. The broader storm front also caused havoc as more than 30 powerful tornadoes tore through “Dixie Alley”. There were 76 dead in Kentucky alone, with eight lost in a candle factory where night-shift workers, some on work-release from jail, later claimed they were dissuaded from leaving their positions or seeking shelter by threats of termination.
Last week, as collapsed houses were marked clear of victims and turned back in on themselves by bulldozers and condemned to demolition, Mayfield residents barely had time to assess the impact. The raging winds had left metal siding wrapped tight around dismembered trees, demolished the town hall Christmas tree and torn the roof off the building itself and scattered debris for miles around in a manner reminiscent of an air-crash.
“It’s not normal to get a tornado in December, but then it’s not normal for it to be 73 degrees at night,” said Mayfield resident Tim Wetherbee, referring to the local temperature on the day the onslaught destroyed 15,000 buildings and trailer-homes and caused at least $3.5bn in damage.
In a world that is failing to do enough to curb emissions that cause global heating and thus make extreme weather events more likely, the wider context of what happened in Mayfield was not lost on Wetherbee. “People think about today, not tomorrow, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
His niece, Huda Alubahi, was sheltering in a bathroom closet when the tornado struck. Clutched to her side was her three-year-old son, Jha’lil, who was struck and killed as the house collapsed. His other niece and her children narrowly escaped injury when their house over the road was struck.
On the other side of the post office, which lost its roof, his sister’s house was also destroyed. In all, Wetherbee, a refrigeration and heating contractor, counted five family members whose houses were destroyed.
As power company workers began restoring power to Mayfieldfor some there was little to do but gawp at the scale of the destruction.
Lengths of two-by-four had become airborne spears, penetrating the metal skins of cars; overturned school buses and semis; storage bins ruptured to reveal tons of grain now exposed to the elements; a collapsed water tower; and dozens of structures, from statuesque municipal buildings or private homes, that will now likely be demolished to prevent black mold from setting in.
“Smaller tornadoes bounce, but an EF-4 stays on the ground,” said property owner Hoot Gibson surveying several of his ruined properties. “The only difference between this and an atom bomb is that a bomb would have fried people.”
Climate change was not a subject all were willing to be drawn on.
“Most people don’t want to know,” said James Hyatte, owner of The Catfish House. “They’ll go with what Fox News or their church tell them.”
Joava Good, deputy director of the Church of Scientology’s disaster response team, ascribed the event to an act of “evil.” Good, who has attended the aftermath of 45 tornadoes, said that to have one of this magnitude in December was open to interpretation. “It’s quite amazing to see what’s happening. Something has changed.”
Following the track of a tornado is a relatively straightforward task of following a trail of broken trees and debris.
Half a mile out of town is the Mayfield Candle Factory, that had 110 workers on night shift when the storm hit. For many, it was work of last resort: poorly paid but easily accessible to those without transport. It offered consistent work, running 10-12 hour shifts around the clock at starting pay of $8 an hour to meet demand from customers like Bed, Bath & Beyond.
“It’s pitiful,” said a project manager for the factory. “We lost eight lives, but we could have lost more.”
The factory, reduced to a pile of twisted metal and concrete, lies a quarter mile from a feed factory that was relatively unscathed, a demolished chicken hatchery missing its chicks, likely drawn 35,000ft up into the storm; a tractor dealership that while badly damaged lost none of its equipment.
Many in town, including workers at the factory that night, contradicted management’s claims that employees had been free to leave after multiple tornado warnings were issued for the area. “Even with weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?” 20-year-old worker Evan Johnson reportedly asked a manager. Their response, “Yes.”
Amos Jones, an attorney representing Haley Conder, one of those trapped in the factory after it collapsed, said the candle factory, along with the partial collapse of an Amazon fulfillment center in Edwardsville that killed six, could be a turning point for labor rights.
“Amid the tragedy, we hope there will be more responsible care for employees and an end to all American sweatshops,” Jones said.
Jones said he he was compelled to file a workers compensation suit after a spokesman for the factory’s owner, Mayfield Consumer Products, continued to discredit and eyewitness declarations that workers were prevented from leaving and subjected to roll-calls and line-ups to determine who had left so they could be disciplined or fired. Company officials denied the allegations.
The tornado also helped focus some minds on exactly who those workers were.
Jaime Massó, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, who had turned his small church into a outreach to supply Mayfield’s Mexican and Central American migrant worker population with food, said many workers at the factory registered under assumed names – leading to confusion over who was missing.
“It’s part of the problem – they’ve been looking for the wrong people,” Massó said. “There’s a fear of authorities, and they’re not going to risk exposing themselves. They’re here, but we’ve got emergency responders searching the rubble.”
Jane Hoopingarner, a crisis responder with the Red Cross, said the job for emergency workers was to start to build trust with communities that often see themselves – and are seen – as outsiders. “We are here to walk beside and support them – not provide everything they need – because they’re already being provided for by their own community.”
The storm itself, though, did not discriminate.
Ten miles south-west of Mayfield, Amish farms dot the landscape, and the communities’ horse-drawn buggies are a common sight on the country lanes and in town.
The storm tore apart the home of Jacob and Emma Gingerich, killing both along with two of their five children. Chris Crawford, a nearby farm owner – an “Englisher” to the Amish – said he’d been over to warn the couple of the storm’s approach. “They had no way to know what was coming. We talked, they thanked me, and then 30 minutes later it came through.”
Crawford went back after it had passed to find the couple’s infant baby, Ben, wearing only a diaper, under a vehicle more than 50 yards from the home and some distance from where his mother lay dead. “I heard the whimper. He was laying in the driveway. I cuddled him up, and just ask God don’t let him die on me.”
Timber supplier Ronnie Murphy, helping to co-ordinate the barn rebuilds, said he believed the infant had been ripped from his mother’s arms. “All the babies that made it through are miracles, but this one…” he trailed off.
By midweek, the family were buried in a single grave, and 200 of the community were coming from as far away as Canada by train to help rebuild the sawmills that had been destroyed. “I guess that’s the way God wanted it,” commented neighbor Joe Stutzman.
He declined to speculate on climate-science interpretations. “We don’t get involved in stuff like that, but the end is getting closer for sure. Why did this thing come through here? I think it was to wake people up. ‘Hey! Work together better. Show your love. Pray.’”
Much of the Gingrich’s farm ended up a quarter-mile away in the wood next to Joey Rogers, who lost his home, four barns, poultry and livestock. Many of his surviving cattle were still too spooked to be rounded up.
“They sense the storm coming and go crazy, but there’s not much place to go when you’re out in a field,” said local vet Timothy Jones. But in the manner of natural disasters, he said, human life was first and foremost, but the animals were part of the trickle down, expansive consequences of a tornado strike.
Domestic animals, too, had been injured – a dog with a splinter in his chest, another that required a leg amputated. Others, though, had been simply swept up into the story and lost for good. “How far they go, who knows?”
It maybe too early to talk of recovery in Mayfield. For some, it is a going to be a haul that goes on long after the immediate dizzying intensity of the event itself and its aftermath subsides.
Sandra Delk, co-ordinator for Mayfield’s community response, said she slept in her car the first two nights, then moved into a trailer with electrical issues, and finally moved back home, though still without light or heating.
“People are in a daze, and some are never going to go back to their homes,” she said.