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Society

Kentucky Families Struggling after Being Hit for a Second Time by a Tornado in the Same Locations

BARNSLEY, Ky.  — Devin Johnson’s life was uprooted for a second time when a tornado flattened his home over the Memorial Day weekend — on the same lot in Kentucky where another storm left him homeless in 2021.

Johnson, 21, watched Tuesday as workers used chain saws to cut into the wreckage of the trailer he called home with his grandparents and girlfriend. It was an all-too-familiar scene for his family.

Their previous home in the tiny western Kentucky community of Barnsley was destroyed during another terrifying tornado outbreak in December 2021 that killed 81 people in the Bluegrass State.

“We never thought that it would happen again,” Johnson said.

Amid all the uncertainty as they start over again, there’s one thing they’ve decided on, he said.

“All we know for sure is we’re not going back here,” Johnson said. “It’s going to have so many memories of us losing everything.”

Barnsley was hit on Sunday by a powerful tornado that packed winds up to 165 mph (266 kph) and tore a destructive path across nearly 36 miles (58 kilometers) of Kentucky, the National Weather Service said.

The region was hit by multiple rounds of severe storms, and damage survey teams were assessing the wreckage to determine how many tornadoes struck. Another powerful storm Sunday barely missed the city of Mayfield, where a painstaking recovery continues from a tornado that hit the town in 2021.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency from the Sunday storms and reported five deaths statewide. The governor toured storm-stricken areas of western Kentucky on Monday.

“We are committed to helping rebuild every home and every life – that’s a promise,” Beshear said Tuesday on the social media platform X.

In Barnsley, the tornado tore through a section of the storm-weary community and flung Johnson’s mangled trailer into a yard next to where Mark Minton’s family lived. The Minton family had roof damage and one end of their trailer was pushed off its foundation. The 2021 storm destroyed their home.

“I’m pretty good at statistics and odds and those numbers don’t add up,” Minton said Tuesday about his family’s home being hit twice.

He doesn’t know yet if it’s a total loss this time. His family stayed put after the 2021 storm, but he’s not sure what they’ll do after the latest twister, which struck the day after his daughter’s marriage. He has a lawn-care business and his youngest son will be a high school senior next school year — two factors tugging at him to stay put.

“I’ve seen my fair share of storms,” Minton said. “But to see the same area — almost pinpoint accuracy — get hit twice in two years, it’s hard to stay in the area.”

His family fled to safety both times before each storm hit. While his family stays with relatives, he said he’s spending nights at home to guard against any potential looting.

Johnson’s family also fled before the tornado hit Sunday, taking refuge with a relative in nearby Madisonville. Watching weather alerts as the storm barreled toward Barnsley, they had a sinking feeling.

“We just all had that feeling that we just lost everything again,” he said.

Haley Loukota, looks over family photographs found among storm debris from her demolished home along Barnsley Loop, Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Madisonville, Ky. A series of powerful storms hit the central and southern U.S. over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Later as he drove back home, emergency vehicles rushed past him. When he turned the corner into his neighborhood, “there was just nothing” as he approached his family’s lot.

In 2021, Johnson’s family rode out the storm in their trailer. With no basement, Johnson hunkered down in the kitchen, desperately clinging to a table with his grandparents, his sister and her boyfriend. His uncle and aunt put a mattress over themselves in the hallway.

“You start hearing a roar and then the entire house started shaking,” he recalled. “The power started flickering and the windows just shattered. And then all of sudden you just feel the wind and pressure and this roar just ripping through the house and it starts tugging on you and trying to drag you out.”

They all emerged unhurt, but the trailer was destroyed. From the wreckage they salvaged some belongings — including a beloved statue of Jesus and Mary that his grandmother had for decades, Johnson said. They recovered some family mementos, including photos.

Johnson’s family furnished their new trailer in stages once they scraped together enough money, he said. But after the latest twister, the family’s home and belongings were strewn across the neighborhood.

“This time, everything that we have is gone,” he said.

Later in the day, they found an engagement ring that had belonged to his girlfriend’s grandmother.

“It’s very meaningful to her because it’s the last memory she has of her grandma,” he said.

His family was insured both times when tragedy struck. But their situation is just as dire as the first time.

“Right now we have no money,” Johnson said. “So we’re just trying to figure out how to go next.”

He’s staying at a motel in Madisonville, with relatives helping with the expenses.

The plan is to move to Madisonville. He and his girlfriend have put away money since the 2021 storm in hopes of getting their own place, but for now they’ll likely live with his grandparents, he said. Johnson has a warehouse job in Madisonville and his girlfriend works at a factory.

“It’s just been so tight since then with all the bills we had to go through,” he said.

Having seen the immense force of tornadoes, he’s longing for a home with a basement.

“We know the power that they’re capable of and how easily they can just take your life,” he said.

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