After mega tornado, Kentucky desperate for Christmas salve
Issued on: Modified:
Dawson Springs (United States) (AFP) – It is normally a joyous season, but in tornado-blasted Kentucky thousands of families are in crisis days before Christmas, including that of 13-year-old Andrew Humphrey, recently made homeless by the worst storm in state history.
Tossing down debris from where their second-floor apartment used to be in the devastated small town of Dawson Springs, Andrew and his two older teen brothers join scores of others Tuesday in the tedious and heart-wrenching task of post-disaster cleanup.
Caroling, Santa, and Christmas tree ornaments are far-off luxuries for now.
"I'm not really worried about Christmas or presents," the young teen, wearing a grey trucker's cap and neon-orange work gloves, tells AFP, adding he feels lucky he and his family escaped the tornado with their lives. "I'm worried about getting a home."
Year-end anxiety has skyrocketed for families caught in the swathe of destruction from Friday's devastating tornadoes that left at least 74 dead in Kentucky, made thousands homeless and plunged residents into deep limbo.
Desperate to ease some stress and put smiles on the faces of children left with little or nothing, Governor Andy Beshear's wife Britainy on Tuesday announced a state-wide gift donation program to ensure young victims of the massive storm won't be left behind for the holidays.
The donations are already pouring in.
At the police station in Paducah, a nearby town spared from the twister's wrath, hundreds of presents -- bicycles, Barbie dolls, train sets, skateboards, books -- are boxed or bagged awaiting a major distribution effort that begins next week in time for the holiday.
When pressed, Andrew, an avid online gamer, says he'd love to replace his console that was likely damaged by water in the storm.
"It'd be nice to get like a new Xbox and a TV," he admits, as his mom shoots him a grin.
Celebrate 'wherever we're at'
Ginny Watts, whose daughter Cavvy turned four one day before the tornado, says her girl knows their house is "broken," but cannot grasp the magnitude of such a disaster, or how it might impact their Christmas.
"I just hope some way we can make it special," Watts, 37, tells AFP outside her recently renovated but newly destroyed home.
When Cavvy asks about getting visited by Santa, Watts says she reassures her: "Baby, we're going to have Santa Claus wherever we're at."
"And at this point, you know, we all know what Christmas is about," she says, noting the holiday's spiritual importance. "It's not necessarily about the toys and whatever."
Sixty-nine-year-old Debbie Cancler lives just across the street, and she combs through the wreckage of her home securing mementos like old photographs.
While her house has been shredded, she miraculously finds intact several sets of pajamas she purchased as presents for her children and four grandchildren.
By celebrating the normality of Christmas, Cancler says, her grandchildren will "have maybe 30 minutes of not worrying" about the trauma of the tornado and its aftermath.
"We will live on," she adds. "We'll be OK, in time."
The miracle of 'surviving'
US President Joe Biden, whose own share of personal tragedy has led some to call him the consoler-in-chief, is set to visit Dawson Springs Wednesday to soothe a traumatized community.
At the local high school, converted into an emergency shelter, families sift through donated clothing, food and toys.
A young boy grabs a plush stuffed animal and looks up at his father, hoping to add it to their cart.
Jonathan Storms, the school's family resource youth services director, expresses amazement at the way Kentuckians have come together to help the tornado victims.
"They're not going to have a home for Christmas, so... if we can distract them at all from the tragedy and the disaster, that's beautiful," says Storms.
Andrew, the teenager, also praises how his neighbors and strangers were "working together" to help the less fortunate.
As for what the upcoming holiday may bring, Andrew insists the greatest gift is being alive despite the hellish wrath inflicted on his community.
"Surviving is the Christmas miracle," he says.
© 2021 AFP