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EAST BERNSTADT, Ky. — Carol Rhodes and her family waited in her home off Little Arthur Ridge Road, listening to reports of tornadoes close by.
They wouldn’t go to the basement, though. They were stubborn. Rhodes’ husband, Don, was especially so.
But moments later, he was the first to spot the tornado traveling toward them across the ridge to the west.
“We were reluctant to go down the stairs,” said Tammy Tackett, the Rhodeses’ daughter. But her father insisted. “He said, ‘I say get down there.’
“We barely made it.”
Don Rhodes was the last one down. The twister managed to suck up the sock and shoe off one of his feet before he hunkered down with his family.
‘It happened so fast’
Friday’s storm came roaring through Laurel County around 7 p.m.
“It happened so fast that we didn’t have time to think,” Tackett said.
Three were reported dead in the county by Friday night, and by late Saturday morning two more deaths had been reported. At least 21 had been killed around the state as of Saturday evening, and at least 39 lives had been claimed from Alabama to Indiana.
The tornado damage in Laurel County was in its northern part, in areas just outside East Bernstadt, which has fewer than 800 people.
Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement Saturday that the devastation around the state was unlike anything he had ever seen.
Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and Sen. Tom Jensen assessed damage in East Bernstadt Saturday morning, where deaths occurred on Hensley, Little Arthur Ridge and Old Hare roads.
A total of 41 people in the county were sent to the hospital — most in London, Ky., but six were taken to UK Hospital, said Trooper First Class Don Trosper, the Kentucky State Police spokesman in London. More than 300 have been injured statewide.
On Little Arthur Ridge Road Friday, Rhodes and her family were praying in their basement as the tornado engulfed their home.
“All we could do is lay there and pray,” she said about their final moments leading to the tornado. “There ain’t no way we’re gonna have time to make things right with God.”
Richard and Pat Adams, Tackett’s in-laws from Letcher County, were told afterward that Tackett’s daughter, Destiny, “barely got there.”
“They thought she was gone,” Pat Adams said.
Destiny Tackett called the scene “horrifying.”
“I really don’t remember anything,” she said. “We just held on to each other and we made it out eventually.”
Tackett, a 16-year-old attending North Laurel High School, said she never thought something like this would happen to her and her family.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said.
Picking up the pieces
Around noon Saturday, Rhodes’ purse was found in a pile of wrecked belongings in the middle of what used to be the home across the street. Her IDs and cards were still inside her wallet.
Piles of framed photographs with broken glass made their way to her front steps as the day went on. The concrete steps, like some of the belongings weighing them down, were the only major part of the house left intact.
Parts of the foundation were crumbled. Insulation, a jar of sugar, perfume bottles — everything a house can hold — were sprawled across Rhodes’ yard and those of her neighbors. Many of their belongings had blown down the hill off the ridge toward the east.
“It took me and my husband 47 years to get it together,” Rhodes said, “and in five minutes …” She trailed off, surveying the damage again and again.
“You see it on the TV,” said Becky Lewis, Rhodes’ sister who arrived Saturday morning from Benham, Ky., “and you just don’t think about it being yours.
“You see all those it touched and they’re alive. That’s a miracle in itself.”
Related Link: West Liberty, Ky., nearly flattened by Friday’s storms
In early afternoon, a group of the Rhodes’ family and friends succeeded in prying Tony Tackett’s truck from underneath a camper and pontoon boat.
To their surprise, the engine started and the truck was soon being driven around the disaster area.
However, losses drastically outnumbered what could be kept.
The Rhodeses’ neighbors directly across the street, Wayne and Debbie Allen, were killed in the storm. Concrete blocks and debris in the distance were all that remained of their home.
Debbie Allen’s mother, Cassie Gray, sat on one of the blocks, crying. In addition to the death of her daughter, her grandson, Eric, and his fiancée were hospitalized.
The pastor from a nearby church tried to console her with prayer.
When she gathered the energy to stand up, Gray eventually made her way to a black car still sitting upright on her daughter’s property. She was helped inside and closed the door to the rest of the world as minutes passed.
The Rhodeses, meanwhile, were gathering belongings in boxes amidst the hum of Pike Electric Corporation’s truck setting up power on a new light pole. The company had been working on Little Arthur Ridge and nearby hills all day.
“You can only restore to whatever’s left,” said Roy Wilburn of Pike Electric. “It’s hard to say because it’s all so bad. But the good thing that came out of it is they still got their family and their health.”
The Rhodeses were thankful for that. Still, little was salvageable in the destruction.
“I don’t think they even know what they’re going to do,” Tackett said, “because they don’t have insurance.”
Securing the scene
National Guardsmen, Kentucky State Police and the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department closed or set up checkpoints at roads leading to the most damage. Residents were allowed in Saturday morning to look for any belongings.
“We’re here just to support the community,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Matlock with the Kentucky National Guard on U.S. Route 25 near Bentley Road. “If they’re not residents of the community, we don’t let them in.”
Trosper, the KSP spokesman, said a reason to close the roads was to prevent people from rubbernecking or going to a disaster scene just to view damage.
Off of Bentley Road, homes were without roofs and trees were uprooted. Some houses and trailers were gone altogether, diminished to piles of rubble. Damage could be seen from the lanes of Interstate 75 North, which runs parallel to Bentley, and traffic was slowed for miles behind the scene while people looked.
Related Link: Statewide emergency declared: death toll rises to 20
“I saw a trailer flipped upside down, a house completely collapsed,” said Jacob Andes, a North Laurel High School senior who volunteered with the Red Cross. He said he brought food to the National Guard at around 4:30 a.m. Saturday and saw trees standing vertically inside houses and no power whatsoever.
Police, firefighters and guardsmen conducted searches throughout the day, starting with the morning light.
Although many were without power — and some were without homes — the Red Cross shelter at the Laurel County Fire Department wasn’t getting visitors Saturday morning.
“No one showed up all night,” said Red Cross volunteer Danita Andes. But “we got some calls this morning of people wanting to know about the shelter.”
Carol Rhodes and her family arrived back at her destroyed home as soon as sunlight hit Saturday morning.
As time passed, more and more community members arrived with residents to help sort through the rubble and console their neighbors.
“It’s hard,” Rhodes said. “It’s really hard.”
But her family and friends were helping them get everything sorted out.
“It’s just hard to believe,” Pat Adams said after arriving. “We would always turn at a barn to get to my son’s house. That barn’s gone. I’m not going to know how to get to his house anymore.”
In a few weeks or months, much of the mess on Little Arthur Road will be gone, too, as residents work to clear their properties. But for now, families like the Rhodes’ must continue to gather what they can and pile it on those untouched front steps.
“Compassion is what it takes,” Tackett said, addressing the support her family has received from friends and neighbors.
“God took care of us,” Carol Rhodes said.