The long road ahead: Rebuilding and recovery in western Kentucky


Aerial damage to the UK Grain and Forage Center of Excellence on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2021. The damage was caused by a tornado that struck western Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021.

Corrie McCroskey

No one was prepared when the collection of storms on Dec. 11 took an undeviating path toward the UK Research and Education Building.

Home to various kinds of research, including horticulture, fruits and vegetables, cattle, tobacco, soybean, wheat and corn, the center was among the many structures in western Kentucky that were left devastated.

After finishing renovations on the center a few years ago in 2019, faculty members feel as if they are back to square one.

Grain crop specialist and managing director of the facility Carrie Knott echoed the faculty’s sobering emotions as the community begins to pick up the pieces.

“We can’t really put a monetary value on the loss of our research. We are going to be delayed at least one year, if not two, for the research that’s being done here,” Knott said. “Although we are very happy that no one got hurt and this is an opportunity for us to rebuild an efficient, modern facility, we are going to be impacted by the limited research and services we can provide.”

Almost all the vehicles and equipment that were on the property were destroyed, and debris was scattered along most of the land. Knott said that the first step is to pick up the pieces of metal and building materials that are too small to be removed by machines.

“We have 1,500 acres and pretty much every single acre was affected by debris. Probably about 750 of that we have to go through by hand and pick up all this tornado damage because it’s not safe for the beef cattle,” Knott said.

Daniel Becker, a horticulture researcher who specializes in fruits and vegetables, lost his blueberry trial in the storm along with the equipment in the laboratory he used to study the fruit.

“We lost a whole lot of previous and current data that is necessary. We lost a blueberry container production trial,” Becker said. “That’s blueberries grown in above ground container … some of them blew away and some of them had pieces of wood that were driven through them.”

Becker said it is likely that his work on vegetables will not be completed this year, and the fruit research is dependent upon being able to get the chemicals and testers that he needs. The tornado destroyed around 90% of the supplies he needs to collect data, he said.

However, there may be a way to start research again before the structure is rebuilt by utilizing temporary laboratories. According to Knott, there are companies that specialize in disaster relief and may be able to provide faculty with these short-term solutions.

“We are being resilient, but we have a long way to go,” Knott said. “This is a very important facility to Kentucky, and it was started 100 years ago because producers said they wanted it … There was never a question that there would not be a rebuild.”

Another faculty member grappling with the changes that the tornado has brought to his research is professor of plant pathology Carl Bradley.

“We lost our lab completely. We lost some of the cultures and samples that we would’ve collected from the field and different soil samples that we collected last season,” Bradley said.

Bradley works in the field, as well as the laboratory researching disease management in crops such as soybean, wheat, barley and rye, utilizing fungal pathogens to research how farmers can control plant diseases.

Without a physical building to continue research, Bradley and his team have had to adapt and work out of their own garages and apartments.

“Everything is pushed back, there’s a lot of logistical challenges right now as far as how to plant out research trials this coming season and how to harvest them,” Bradley said. “We’re probably going to do some contracting out to different groups to come in and plant our trials.”

Fortunately, an ultra-freezer containing fungal cultures was able to be salvaged from the wreckage.

“That freezer, although banged up, was still intact. The items inside were still there. We were able to get those to a minus 80 [degree] freezer on campus,” Bradley said. “Those are things that we’ve been collecting and working on over the last 20 years. A lot of my career was in that freezer.”

One of the larger parts of Bradley’s work that is missing is the equipment that he acquired through grants and raising funds.

“I had four pickup trucks that I purchased for my program, all of those were totaled. Some of the pickups ended up into the trees across the streets,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you have to walk around and see it to completely grasp how powerful these tornadoes can be.”

Moving forward, the university is working with insurance companies to purchase new equipment, but there are difficulties getting it because of the widespread delay with supply. Bradley said that dealing with tornado devastation in the midst of supply chain problems caused by COVID is a “challenging” combination.

Though most physical damage to the facility will likely be recouped in the coming years, the animal lives that were lost in the storm are unrecoverable.

Katie VanValin, a specialist in beef cattle nutrition, explained how the herd of cattle at the facility was affected. She said that she and her team had started a trial the morning that the tornado hit, which resulted in several cattle deaths and injuries. Thanks to the tornado, she is unable to continue the study.

With cattle research being a seasonal operation, VanValin expressed that the loss and change within the herd will be a missed opportunity this year. However, she acknowledged that the damage could have been much worse, saying that she knew of producers who lost entire herds of cattle.

“We’re really fortunate given the damage that was all around these cattle that we didn’t lose more of them. We’re still learning what the ultimate impacts are going to be,” VanValin said. “We will be back, but over this next year it’s going to be a matter of assessing where the herd is at and making changes to some of our facilities and fences.”

Hopeful for the future, VanValin feels like the destruction has given faculty members a chance they were not expecting to create a brand-new facility.

“We have an opportunity to rebuild it better than it was. That’s the view that I’m choosing to take,” she said. “It’s not something that we ever hoped for but it’s our reality and it’s what we’re dealing with so we’re trying to make the best of it and build back better than what we had before.”