There is an unwritten rule in journalism: never become part of the story.
Most days, we news types are pretty good at avoiding the pitfalls of being involved on a personal level with the issues and events we report on.
Other times, it simply becomes impossible to avoid it.
Before the events of Friday evening and Saturday morning, I had done a pretty good job over a few decades of avoiding becoming involved. The only other time I became “news” on the job was because I got too comfortable at an industrial fire, and that one is entirely on me.
But the “Quad-State Tornado” is an entirely different beast.
Throughout the day on Thursday and Friday, like many of you, I had stayed updated on the potential for severe weather coming into the region. The predictions seemed to change hourly, but I remained vigilant and discussed the forecast with my wife, Amber, and several friends and family around Muhlenberg, Butler and Logan counties.
Some told me they were not concerned, others expressed a sense of preparedness, and some (surprisingly so) were total ignorant of what could be headed our way.
On Friday, Amber had a medical appointment at Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital, so while there, I read National Weather Service reports and even talked with hospital CEO Ed Heath about local preparations.
After the appointment was finished, we returned around lunchtime and I went to a coffee shop in Greenville and a convenience store near our Central City home. Folks in both businesses expressed a mixture of trepidation and indifference.
My feeling was one of dread. I just felt something was not right. There was talk of schools dismissing early (they didn’t), talks of government offices closing early (some did), and a bit of weird feeling in the air around Muhlenberg County.
I was committed to a night spent in our partial basement; not unusual really, since it’s where all my “stuff” is, but it is also the safest place in the house.
Our son Ethan was scheduled to visit family in Logan County, and he was off before sunset. I was a bit nervous to let him go, but I knew his sister would keep him safe.
Left at home was Amber and me. I made sure our phones were charged, that I knew where flashlights were, and Amber retrieved a scented candle, the only type we had in our house.
By 9 p.m., the watches and warnings began pinging our phones, and I paced like an expectant father from my chair to the basement porch, looking to the sky and to the west, observing the increasing lightning and thunder.
By 10 p.m., the watches turned to warnings and directions to find shelter. The warning sirens mixed with the sirens and lights of emergency services signaled something was very wrong in our community. A social media post showed destruction at METS Home Value hardware store just two-tenths of a mile from our home, but we knew little else. We would not know the full extent of it until the next morning.
I can promise you, what sleeping took place – at least on my part – was fitful and light.
Saturday revealed that either a tornado or straight-line winds had not only destroyed the store, but had also heavily damaged homes in Central City and knocked out power to the Walmart Supercenter, forcing the store to dispose of all frozen and chilled food. The worst news was that the community of Bremen in north Muhlenberg had taken a direct hit. Then we began to see the pictures of Mayfield and Dawson Springs.
Our hearts sank.
Throughout the day Saturday, I reached out to friends in Dawson Springs, Mayfield, Murray, Bowling Green and Paducah to get a better picture, all the while answering frantic requests of assurance “my people” were all okay.
I put on my “journalist hat” and visited the damaged areas in Central City, learning no one had been hurt and there were no fatalities, but soon learned our district judge, Brian Crick, was dead in Bremen, along with others, some of whom were still missing.
I learned everyone else I knew in the hard-hit areas was alive, though many had lost their homes and businesses. We made an attempt to get into Bremen to document what was going on, but were turned away by the National Guard.
While I am a journalist, Amber is a registered nurse, working in worker’s compensation case management. Late Saturday night she got the word she was needed in Paducah and Mayfield to respond to the collapse of the Mayfield candle factory, where several died and dozens were hurt.
I can’t tell you much of what I know about those victims, but I do know that we may never have a scented candle in our house ever again. Amber said the hospitals are sickeningly pungent with candle fragrance, as victims were burned with wax and chemicals in the building collapse. The road ahead for these folks is not an easy one.
I have seen destruction and death – natural, accidental, and intentional – in my time covering Kentucky communities, but nothing could have prepared me for the total devastation in those areas I have visited. The images, the sounds and the stories will never fade in my memory.
Many of those first-responders, volunteers and property owners are my friends, just as I am sure is the same for you. I hurt for them, too, and have concern for their well-being headed into the days ahead.
The winds may have died down, but west Kentucky is a long way from being made whole again.
We have lost scores of our fellow Kentuckians and even more are missing. We have lost the landmarks and the beauty of some of our most-beloved communities. But we have also gained togetherness and a renewed compassion for our neighbors.
No tornado or tragedy is ever a good thing, but I do believe good can come out of it.
The healing and rebuilding will take time, though we can learn of ourselves and prepare ourselves for the “next time.”
As our state motto proclaims, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” At least in these days, there are no divisions left in Kentucky.
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Josh Givens is a reporter for the Hancock Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 370-927-6945.