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Hope in the Heartland: Support comes from far and wide to help storm-ravaged Kentucky

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Posted at 5:13 PM, Dec 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 22:04:27-05

DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky — In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the toughest hours of the past week have also produced some of humanity’s finest moments. Those who can, did. Those who had, gave. In many respects, the outpouring of support from far and wide has transcended any perceived divide between states and between people. And while the wounds of the 165-mile scar through Kentucky’s midsection have yet to scab, let alone heal, those on the ground helping with relief efforts said the continued support and selflessness will help guide them through their prolonged recovery.

For those who have never been, Kentucky is, in many ways, a series of communities stitched together by a road map. A unique blend of Southern charm, Midwestern grit and Appalachian ingenuity, people are proud to be from Kentucky because they are Kentucky.

In the same vein that Clevelanders have embraced the city’s moments of notoriety like the Cuyahoga River fire, Kentuckians also have embrace their nature.

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“There is a unique charm to being a Kentuckian. Anybody that has spent any time here in Kentucky, I think they can attest to that unique charm of who we are and what we’re about,” said Ryan Dearbone, a lifelong Kentuckian now living in Bowling Green. “I have always been proud to be a Kentuckian. I think in this past week I have never been more proud.”

Dearbone, a former television news reporter at WBKO in Bowling Green, said the immediate aftermath of last week’s tornado — roads impassable, communication lines severed, families displaced — was met quickly and succinctly by friends, neighbors and strangers. Whether it was rescues, relief, or donation drives, everyone helped.

Along with members of several black fraternities as well as the NAACP of Bowling Green, Dearbone helped to organize a massive donation drive, gathering items of immediate need, including diapers, non-perishable food, clothes, and other necessities.

“We started emailing, texting and calling each other. The different organizations, different groups. By Monday we had our plan in place and we have been working through it ever since,” Dearbone said. “Nobody ever wants to go through something like this, whether you are directly affected or someone you know is affected. I have friends that have lost their houses, livelihoods, people who have lost lives. This changes you. This changes a community.”

Nearly 100 miles to the northwest of Bowling Green, Taylor Heady, a mother and reserve sheriff’s deputy, couldn’t escape her intuition as the tornado, estimated to be an EF-4, chewed through western Kentucky like a woodchipper.

It kept telling her, “you need to do something.”

As Bowling Green lay in the path of one twister, the monster EF-4 tornado that cut the state in half blew through Mayfield, hopped over Kentucky Lake, before crushing Dawson Springs. Similar to the direct hit on Mayfield, the damage in Dawson Springs is indescribable.

And, yet, Heady’s inner monologue only grew louder and louder.

“Go. Do something.”

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“Then pictures started rolling in. It was just almost unbelievable,” Heady said. “I told my husband that I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go.”

They did. Back and forth between their home in Henderson, Heady has been in the area of Dawson Springs every day since the twister hit. On day one, there were rescues and extrications. On days two and three and four and five and six — the days blend together, she said — she’s helped to install tarps on exposed roofs; she’s handed out toys to children; she’s collected donated clothes as well as clothes that were strewn around town in the storm. She helped a family bury their beloved dog after a wall collapsed on its kennel.

You name it, she’s done it. And she’d do it again and again if given the chance.

“If it would have been our community, I would have hoped and prayed that people up here did the same and came toward us. I think it’s been life-changing to be honest with you. To be honest, lately, I just was feeling like I had not been as grateful for my life. This changed me. It’s life-changing, it’s life-changing for everybody.”

As Heady recounted the blur of the past several days, her child was in a nearby room. Heady had just met the homeowner on Monday, who offered to wash every piece of clothing that Heady could find.

Disasters have a way of forging and galvanizing friendships quickly.

“She’s been washing all of the laundry for us so that way we can bring it all back to [tornado victims],” Heady said. “Her table is covered with laundry. She’s been cleaning toys that we have found. It’s just been amazing. We have met people from all over. It’s just wild. It’s not just Kentucky folks that are helping.”

Heady was also quick to point out the various area law enforcement agencies and fire departments — many of whom are volunteer-based — who have tirelessly worked since late Friday night. Officers, deputies and firefighters from cities not impacted by the storms have also flooded the area to offer their help.

Help has come from both sides of the Ohio River, too.

Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky have a sort of rivalry, especially when it comes to college basketball. But, deep down, folks from both sides of the river know that they’re more like than different. And in moments of tragedy and despair and devastation, zip codes and state abbreviations are irrelevant.

Non-profits, first responders, business leaders and everyone in-between from the Indiana side of the border have also lent aid.

“Kentucky is family. That’s the best way to put it. There’s no big fancy term for it. That’s Kentucky. We’re family,” Heady said. “I just want others to know that that in the back of their mind, their intuition is saying, ‘I should help but oh, I’m just one person.’” It does not matter; one person can have an impact.”

No truer has that statement ever been than one of Heady’s searches in the rubble this week. A small pendant-like necklace had become buried in debris. Immediately realizing that the necklace could have sentimental value to its owner, Heady wiped it free of dirt, mud and dust and shoved it in her pocket.

Then, she met the owner.

“It was actually a necklace with her grandpa’s ashes,” Heady said.

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