Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
School buses packed to the roof with donations. Teachers going door to door to make sure their students were safe. Administrators opening schools in the middle of the night to shelter victims. Cafeteria workers serving hot meals. Bus drivers taking supplies to what was left of their students’ homes.
In the minutes, hours, days and weeks after deadly tornadoes swept through western and south central Kentucky, school personnel from across the state did what came naturally – they took care of others.
“We had administrators on the ground at 2 a.m. going and searching houses in the affected areas, and had teachers going door to door, all unsolicited,” Warren County Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton told WBKO-TV. “I think the one thing that really is inspirational from this is you see the hundreds of employees, almost every administrator across the district on site – all doing that on their own. We did not deploy any individual.”
It was the same at Kentucky public school districts across the 17 counties impacted by the storms of Dec. 10 and 11. Without a second thought, employees simply showed up and started helping.
And those far from the disaster also took action, starting donation drives and setting up fundraisers.
“It could be one of us, it could be our town. So, as far as school districts, we all stick together. We compete on the field, on the court, but not when it comes to just being good humans. We’re all in it together,” Traysea Moresea, Greenup County superintendent who helped organize a “Stuff the Bus” drive, told WBKO-TV.
As of Dec. 20, 76 people ranging in age from two months to 98 years had died from the storms. The dead included four Warren County Schools students and a Dawson Springs school board member.
The destruction left at least seven school districts closed until after winter break and many more closed for at least two days. Dawson Springs Superintendent Leonard Whalen, whose area was among the hardest hit, said the district would not resume classes until Jan. 18.Mayfield Ind. had not announced a reopening date. The district’s bus garage was destroyed and all of the buses were damaged, said Superintendent Joe Henderson.
“School is the farthest thing from my mind, right now, we have people who are trying to survive,” Henderson said four days after the storm. “We are just trying to take care of our community in the best way that we can.”‘Epicenter of response’
In the most heavily damaged areas, victims quickly turned to their local school districts for help. Whalen, Clayton and Henderson shared their experiences during the Dec. 12 Superintendent’s Webcast.
Within 30 minutes of the tornado destroying much of Dawson Springs, the school became a triage center with many people, some seriously wounded, making their way to the building, Whalen said.
“And really from that point forward, Dawson Springs High School kind of become the epicenter of response for Dawson Springs,” he said.
District personnel worked at the school helping others even as they were assessing damage to their own homes or seeking shelter themselves. At least 10 Dawson Springs employees lost their homes, Whalen said.It was a similar scene in Mayfield, said Henderson. With much of the town destroyed as the tornado tore through downtown Mayfield Dec. 10, many people immediately thought of the school.
“We had 150 to 200 people here in our gymnasium the night it happened because they were walking the streets with nowhere to go,” he said. “And so we housed them here, but we had to relocate them to some areas with electricity and water after the first day.”
While school districts routinely train for emergencies, including natural disasters, Clayton said, he was still shocked at the swift action of district employees.
“It was still a bit of a surprise that when the catastrophe struck, our schools were the focal point. We mobilized literally in minutes. And I say we, I didn’t even know it was happening because I was one of those that had no electricity,” he said.Searching for survivors, students
But opening their doors wasn’t the only way that school districts and their employees tried to help in the immediate aftermath of the storms.
A school bus driver in Taylor County pulled his neighbors out of the rubble in their basements after the storms, said Lt. Gov. Jaqueline Coleman, who met the driver’s wife while touring the area.“He went down to the next house and yelled for his neighbors, same thing had happened, the house caved in on them and he heard his neighbors say, ‘We’re down here please don't leave us’ and he didn’t,” she said. He was able to free the family.
“It’s our everyday heroes that are stepping up. They do God's work every day, and I mean they are the angels that show up when we need them,” she said.
The morning after the storm in Bowling Green, Jennings Creek Elementary (Warren Co.) teacher Sara Dockery went to each of her students’ homes to make sure they were safe.
Starting on Tuesday after the storm, Warren County sent buses out to the hardest hit areas of town with meal bags of breakfast and lunch. It was a chance for bus drivers to check on their students and bring needed help.
In Dawson Springs, preschool teacher Cami King did the same thing. The CBS Evening News followed King as she found her students and hugged them tightly.“They need to know that their connection to this school is out there walking around,” she said. “I want them to know that I love them and it’s just a feeling that I’m doing the right thing.”Districts helping districts
After the initial need for shelter was over, many schools began serving hot meals and taking in the donated items that poured in from across the state.
Many schools also offered counseling to students and families impacted by the storm.
The Mayfield High School gymnasium became a distribution center – full of clothes, household goods and cleaning supplies. The building was open daily for anyone impacted by the storm to take what they needed.
“You do not have to have a child in the district or do you even have to live in the city limits. If you have a need right now, we are here to help,” the district posted.
It was a similar scene at Dawson Springs Ind. where classrooms with notes from Dec. 10’s lessons still on the white boards were turned into makeshift free stores. The school was open six days a week for storm victims to get the items they needed from the thousands of donations.
The school also had showers and clothes washers available for use.
In some cases, the donations came in so quickly and in such quantities that some schools had to ask that the donations be sent elsewhere.
On Dec. 20, the “Stuff the Bus” effort organized by Moresea, Trace Creek Construction CEO Sam Howard and the state’s educational cooperatives culminated with a caravan of buses each filled to the ceiling with donations making its way to western Kentucky.
Starting in eastern Kentucky, the caravan grew to more than 65 buses as districts along the way joined in.
“This actually shows what Kentucky is all about,” Howard told WBKO-TV. “We have worked with the local school systems and local county government to make sure that all that were bringing can be stored correctly and saved for a later date.”
In addition to donating items, Kentucky school districts helped each other by raising money. Ludlow Independent, in northern Kentucky, shares the panther mascot with Dawson Springs so the district started “Panthers Helping Panthers.”
In one week, the district raised more than $15,000 for their fellow Panthers. Beechwood Ind., a frequent football rival with Mayfield Ind., collected six tractor trailers full of supplies for people in Mayfield and started a fund for donations.
“Public schools, and schools in general, are a hub and reflection of the community,” Beechwood Superintendent Mike Stacy told the Mayfield Messenger. “It’s been a hard stretch through COVID, politics and all these other things, so it’s just nice to be able to get back to doing what we do in helping kids and families, and that’s not only in our community.”
Hopkins County Schools sent 250 meals to Dawson Springs Ind. and sent crews to neighborhoods to hand out meals to those without power. The district also opened its Earlington Elementary and West Hopkins Schools as distribution sites for donations.
“This is the why for us,” said West Hopkins Principal Eric Stone. “For six years, we have had the word ‘family’ on the school shirts. This community is a family.”
Dec. 10 and 11 tornadoes
23 disaster declarations:
Counties: Barren, Caldwell, Calloway, Christian, Fulton, Graves, Hart, Hickman, Hopkins, Logan, Lyon, Marion, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Ohio, Taylor, Warren.
Cities: Bowling Green, Cave City, Horse Cave, Munfordville, Park City, Princeton.
As of Dec. 20, more than 600 people were being housed in seven Kentucky state parks.
Killed and injured:
As of Dec. 20, 76 people had been confirmed dead. After the storm 138 people were treated at emergency rooms.
Source: Gov. Andy Beshear’s office
How you can help:
Donate to the state’s Team Western Kentucky Fund at TeamWKYReliefFund.ky.gov
or send a check made out to “Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund” and sent to Public Protection Cabinet, 500 Mero Street, 218C, Frankfort, KY 40601
Warren County Schools is raising money for families impacted by the tornadoes at gofund.me/61ccaabc
Photo 1: Johnson Co. Schools loaded four buses and a 26-foot box truck with water and supplies as part of the “Stuff the Bus” drive. (Provided by Johnson Co. Schools)
Photo 2: Volunteers sort through the donations that filled the halls of South Warren Middle School after the storms. (Provided by Warren Co. Schools)
Photo 3: Hopkins Co. Schools employees served hot meals to the community after the storms. (Provided by Hopkins Co. Schools)
Photo 4: Muhlenberg Co. Schools Superintendent Robert Davis speaks with Lt. Gov. Jaqueline Coleman as she visited the Bremen area. (Provided by Gov. Andy Beshear’s Office)
Photo 5: President Joe Biden meets with survivors as he surveyed the damaged area on Dec. 15. (Provided by Gov. Andy Beshear’s Office)
Photo 6: A caravan of more than 65 buses makes its way to western Kentucky on Dec. 20. The “Stuff the Bus” effort was spearheaded by Greenup Co. Schools, Trace Creek Construction and the state’s educational co-operatives. (Provided by Shirley McQuillan)