Quad-State Tornado One-Year Anniversary: How Are KY Towns that Were Impacted Rebuilding?
The weather has always been somewhat of an obsession of mine. Growing up in the era of movies such as Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, and Night of The Twisters. I can remember renting VHS copies from Blockbuster or if you lived in Utica, Kentucky like myself during the 1990s and early 2000s, one of the local gas stations.
I remember from my childhood watching storms roll in from the family farm and watching Wayne Hart on TV. I will never forget the January 2000 tornado that hit Owensboro, which fueled my interest in the terrifying meteorological phenomenon. Tornados, while fascinating, have always been one of my greatest fears. Nothing I'd ever want to directly encounter. Unfortunately, life does take its own course of action, and there isn't much one can do to stop it.
The warm days that lead up to the historical tornado outbreak in December of last year still weigh on my mind as if it were just yesterday. The abnormal winter weather and unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid and upper 70s were incredibly mild and comfortable while running errands just hours before the severe weather outbreak. I remember going to the local Walmart here in Bowling Green the morning of December 10th to purchase baby formula for my then 7-month-old twins. While there, I kept the day's forecast in mind, as one does when they're fascinated with severe storms. I went to the hunting and camping section of the store and purchased some Coleman lanterns and smaller luminaries in preparation for the predicted storms. Trust me when I say it was a worthy investment.
This particular off-season tornado outbreak has been classified as one of the deadliest December tornado outbreaks in history. The storm system got its start over the central regions of the country in the Mississippi Valley before its eastward march. The tornadic activity was first recorded in Arkansas before progressing into Missouri and beyond. One long-track supercell was to blame for a multi-state twister that would be placed in the history books as one longest on-ground traveled cyclones ever.
The Quad-State tornado formed over Northeastern Arkansas near Jonesboro as a low-end EF-4 (Enhanced Fujita Scale) before invading communities in the bootheel region of Missouri and crossing over the Mississippi River into the far western reaches of the Tennessee Valley. This tornado dissipated as it made its way into Western Kentucky where a much stronger end EF-4 tornado took its place.
This newly formed twister was stronger than its predecessor and was ready to cause devastation. Towns like Mayfield, Dawson Springs, and Breman would never be the same after the tornado would move through their communities. The tornado is said to have stayed on the ground for a merciless 250 miles. The twister had winds upwards of 190 miles an hour, nearly the equivalent of speeds found at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race.
The nocturnal tornado was a monster long-track system that is more commonly seen in other areas of the country. The death toll climbed to 89 total for the entire outbreak, with 74 of those being in Kentucky alone. The estimated damages from the storm system were near the $4 billion price point. Many homes and businesses were taken to the ground and lives were forever changed by the devastating loss.
Bowling Green/ Warren County Tornados
Bowling Green, while not in the direct path of the Quad-State Tornado, suffered a crippling blow of its own. There wasn't just one tornado on the ground in town that night, there were three. Two were significantly high-end EF-3s. The tornados tracked right through the heart of my adopted hometown, and permanently altered lives. Main thoroughfares were on the receiving end of the tornado's wrath, and many homes and businesses were a total loss. The daily commute around town would become treacherous in the following days and weeks as many roads were closed due to the severity of the damage.
Entire neighborhood blocks were nearly leveled, and entire families would perish. Bowling Green had a loss of life totaling 17 with many more injured.
The above photos I took the day of the tornados. The below images are from Getty Images.
Will and Tiffany Pauquette lived close to the campus of Western Kentucky University the night the tornadoes hit and can recall some of their emotions and experiences of the night:
"One of my best friends, Chad, had called sometime between 12:30 and 1 am to warn us of the approaching storm and that the factory where he works was evacuating all employees to the basement for shelter. He was blowing my phone up to get us the message things were getting serious with the weather." Tiffany stated, "Chad was very insistent on us taking shelter."
Will and Tiffany were a bit hesitant to get into action to shelter in place as Bowling Green has had many rough storms in the past that never produced much in the way of action. Bowling Green is famous for having "The Bowling Green Bubble" which is what so many of us claimed for the lack of severity of storms. Bowling Green has had its fair share of tornado-warned storms in the past, but always lucked out and came away from things untouched by nature. The happy couple was settled in for the evening as it were, considering the storms didn't arrive until the very wee hours of the morning on the 11th of December.
"I remember hearing the tornado sirens," Will says of that night.
"I remember the wind, the extreme wind. I distinctly remember very loud winds." Tiffany recollects. "But I didn't know how close it was to us when it struck. To say it was earth-shattering to learn it was only mere blocks from our home was an understatement. Everyone was calling to check on us to make sure that we were ok. I remember feeling the suction, a weird pressure on the house, like the winds were just so intense."
Tiffany goes on to state, " I just had a feeling that we would be ok, but I also had a feeling that something really terrible was about to happen." Her instincts were not wrong, as the storm claimed 17 lives of those in and around the city we call home.
Johnathan Neukomm was working the night shift at a locally owned restaurant on the 31-W bypass in Bowling Green the night of December 10th and into the early morning hours of the 11th. Firehouse Pizza was a late-night eatery just a few blocks away from WKU's main campus and was open usually until about 4 am.
"My girlfriend had called freaking out saying there was a long-track tornado heading into town from Logan County/Russellville but I was insistent on making one last delivery of the night to one of our regular customers," Johnathan said.
"I was on University Boulevard heading across campus when I guess my car was blown off the road and onto the sidewalk when the tornado came through. Bowling Green doesn't really get storms that bad so I kind of didn't think it was about to be as serious as what it was. After my car was thrown onto the sidewalk I turned around and made my way back to Firehouse. Only debris was covering the roads so I had to take alternate routes to get back. I had to park several blocks down on the bypass from the restaurant because the debris was so bad I couldn't drive through. There were trees and powerlines all over the road and big portions of what used to be buildings."
Johnathan continued by saying, " I remember walking behind a locally owned Mexican food place that was next door to the strip mall where Firehouse was, and the last standing wall collapsed as I made my way on foot back to work to check on co-workers. I could feel the ground tremble a bit as the brick wall disintegrated. It was then I knew the bypass was a direct hit."
When Johnathan returned to Firehouse, he was met by a building in ruin. Windows had been blown out and debris had made an entrance. Everyone that was working that night made it home safely, and the businesses that were in the strip mall have yet to reopen.
One Year Later
Times passage is a certain thing, much like the certainty of never knowing what to expect from the weather. As Kentuckians, it is no mystery that our weather can be extremely diverse and unexpected. While many western states are home to dangerous daytime tornadoes, our region is known for nocturnal twisters, which adds a heightened threat as many are in bed and unaware of the situation. It's always good to remain weather aware, no matter the season. Have ways to receive news and weather warnings from sources other than TV. Weather alert radio could be life-saving, as power could be lost and television broadcasts could be taken down in the onslaught of a storm.
Dawson Springs has placed a memorial monument in the city park with the names of those who perished in that area that fateful night. On one side of the monument, there is a quote from Lord Byron, " Adversity is the path to truth."
Strong winds may tear down buildings, but they will never rattle the soul, we keep on, we strengthen and we help raise up our neighbors. That was the mindset of us all in the days that followed. The rebuild continues for many who lost homes and businesses across Warren County and the state, Kentuckians have a courageous spirit that keeps us moving forward. I want to take a moment to sincerely thank everyone that came to the aid and support of everyone impacted by the December 2021 storms.
Here are a couple of events coming up in Bowling Green this weekend to commemorate the event and to honor our 17 lost.