▶️ Oregon volunteers share stories from Kentucky tornado relief front lines

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December 10, 2021. 

A historic day, changing many lives and taking others.

Multiple tornadoes swept across Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee that Friday night, and the death toll is currently sitting at 76.

Kentucky saw the most loss in both life and property, and passionate helpers from across Oregon weren’t about to sit on the sidelines.

“The pictures and the videos just don’t do justice, it’s 10 times worse than what you see,” said Marc Brooks, Executive Director of the Salem-based Cascade Relief Team. 

His team of six arrived in Kentucky last Sunday to volunteer at a Dawson Springs shelter in a Baptist church. 

Brooks described the shocking scene they encountered. 

“Roofs that were on the other side of the street…projectiles going through siding…wood projectiles, debris, literally being thrown through the walls of a home.” he said. 

The National Weather Service estimated this week that 15,000 buildings were destroyed during the weather event at a cost of more than $3.5 billion.

Volunteer Troy Harman was a truck driver for 12 years, and saw many natural disasters across the country. 

“I don’t think I’ve seen one personally that was so terrible,” he said. “To me, it looked like someone took the houses, picked them up in the air, crumbled them, and then dropped them back where they were at.” 

The Red Cross sent more than 450 volunteers from around the country, including 14 from Oregon (one Bend woman), to aid the survivors. 

Volunteer Alan Underkofler from Corvallis spoke with Central Oregon Daily News on Monday from their relief center in Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park. 

“I’m in charge of finding supplies that we can’t get, unusual supplies that we need to run a disaster response…any random things, from tables, to heaters, to kitchen utensils to food, whatever it might be that for whatever reason we need now…that’s what we’re here for.”

The relief center is located near the town of Mayfield, in a county where 22 were killed, which includes nine people who perished in the destruction of a candle factory. 

“There’s nothing like coming over that hill and dropping into Mayfield, and it looks like a bomb just went off in the middle of town,” Underkofler said. “There’s so many buildings that are flattened, there’s brick buildings that are completely collapsed and caved in…buildings, houses, street after street just completely wiped out.”

He compared it to damage from wildfires in Oregon. 

“We had these huge devastating fires a few years ago, followed by more devastating fires this past year, it’s very similar,” he said. “You have people that had all of their belongings, everything they’ve ever owned, everything they’ve collected, and it was all in this one house and now that entire house with all of those things are gone.”

Both teams bear chilling stories from survivors. 

“You’re hearing about parents that were going through this tornado, and the only thing they could do was hunch over their kids and protect them while their entire house caves in on top of them. It’s just unreal to think about going through something like that,” Underkofler said. 

Brooks talked about a teenage waitress they spoke with, who said she hid her bathtub with her dog as a sound like “a cross between a freight train and a growl” surrounded them. 

“She said at one point she saw a horse flying in the air, her neighbor’s horse, literally like the movie,” he said. “She came out after it was over, and she noticed their barns were gone, and she was looking for their tractor. A couple days later they found it eight miles away.”

Amid the destruction has been an outpouring of goodwill. 

Harman was in charge of receiving donations at the church shelter in Dawson Springs. 

“The most impactful thing for me was actually, it sounds terrible, but having to talk to someone and turn them away, because there was so much help that we didn’t have any more space,” he said. 

The Cascade Relief Team flew back to Oregon on Monday, but they plan to return to help for another two weeks in January. 

“I’m worried about in the three weeks to six months…when CNN and ABC and the cameras are gone, and it’s just whoever wants to help on the ground,” Brooks said. “So we’re going to put a place out here, and we’re looking for a warehouse to make sure that we have the stuff, the resources and the people for the long-term.”

To find out more about assisting the Cascade Relief Team in their efforts, you can visit cascaderelief.org

Volunteers from The Red Cross will stay long-term as well, with many of them giving up holidays with loved ones to help those in need. 

“If you talk to volunteers about why are they here when they could be spending time with family and enjoy Christmas and the holidays, their response is always going to be ‘because these people can’t.'” Underkofler said. 

He said 95% of the people in the tent with him were volunteers, and asked that people visit redcross.org to donate to their efforts, or to find out more about helping through giving blood or volunteering themselves. 

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