As Climate Disasters Increase, Here's How One Kentucky Town is Rebuilding

Last week I flew to tiny Dawson Springs, Kentucky, to help rebuild houses destroyed in the devastating tornadoes that ripped through the state a year ago. As a totally unskilled volunteer for an organization called Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, I am not sure I made much of a contribution. But I returned home to California with unexpected joy in my heart and a confidence that we can meet the challenges a warming climate will bring.

Dawson Springs is a town of 2000 residents in the western region of Kentucky. Gently rolling farmlands, Dollar Stores, and churches dot the landscape. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt. Everybody seems to know everybody, if only in passing. And California, when it came up in conversation, drew a kind of quizzical look - as if a million miles away.

On December 10th, 2021, Dawson Springers were, like the rest of America, dealing with the still unfolding Covid pandemic and just trying to cope. Then came the mother of all tornadoes. Weather forecasters had warned of thundershowers and possible twisters in the region.

But nothing prepared folks for what was about to happen. At 11 pm, a great roaring sound arose from the south - "like freight trains passing overhead" - and descended upon them randomly, killing 18 in Dawson alone, shearing entire buildings not just off their foundations, but swirling them into smithereens.

Today — one year later - the news reporters are all gone. Many residents have left. There is a deserted, eerie quiet to the town. Yet here and there, the sound of hammers and the gentle churn of concrete delivery trucks break the silence and speaks of a massive rebuild going on.

The past year has been anything but easy; it still isn't for some. Living in FEMA trailers or with neighbors, they spend their days dealing with bureaucracies and insurance adjusters and volunteering to help others harder hit than they. But I encountered no despair. In my interactions with locals - the funeral director out washing his hearse for a 2 pm funeral — I found hopefulness, "we will get through this" and quiet fortitude. They call on God and give praise for sparing them.

Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders is run by my oldest brother, Bartow Tucker, 75, and his wife Heather, of Danvers, Mass. Bart was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer for years in northern Virginia. When Katrina struck, he and his churchmen rented a U-Haul truck, loaded it with diapers and supplies, and headed down to offer aid.

Transformed by the experience, he has devoted his life to showing up at hurricanes and tornadoes, identifying those most in need, marshaling the funding, recruiting volunteers from the faith community and from corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, and building modest but adequate homes.

Fuller receives grant money from the Red Cross and other organizations. They complete three homes a week. Budgeting a mere $45,000 per house in their grant requests, attracting volunteers is an essential part of their business model. Volunteers sleep in churches (lots of snoring) and are organized and directed by paid tradesmen, often devout Christians inspired by a call to serve.

Their willingness to work for what Tucker calls "missionary wages,” thus, Bart and Heather's leadership, motivation and coaching are a constant ingredient in fulfilling the mission - and retaining skillsets. Resignations and turnover are a constant occurrence, the work draining emotionally as well as physically.

While in Kentucky I heard many stories of abject fear "will we die tonight or will we live?" I heard tales of woe, lives disrupted. In storm-battered states North Carolina, Louisiana, and Kentucky, where Fuller is currently concentrating, I found hope as well. Here on the ground, not just homes but lives are being restored. And good-hearted volunteers (I worked alongside a group of Mennonite young men from Pennsylvania and Virginia) are working side-by-side from various states, sharing stories, feeling good about the act of volunteering, hoping that if something like this were to happen to me, that too might be revived.

Mostly, I watched my brother from afar. He is on his cell constantly as he drove his minivan from project to project, meeting with mayors and local leaders, ironing out crises, making endless trips to Lowes, and in one case coaxing a foreman to return to work after a falling out with a peer and walking off the job.

As Bart and I were driving away from hearing one man's terrible tale of survival and injury huddled in the basement of the vaporized house above him, my brother remarked: "He's probably told that story a hundred times or more. He needs to tell it and you were good to draw it out of him. People in these disaster zones need a sympathetic listener for their healing."

The highlight of the week was a house dedication ceremony I attended for a single woman named Lisa, who was presented with the keys to her new home. Attending the dedication were volunteers, local politicians, church leaders, and friends of the happy homeowner. We left our worksites to gather and pray and hear some words of encouragement. A local pastor spoke of Job in the Bible, and how, even though a good and faithful servant, had his faith tested as it was put to the test by various disasters that befell him and killed off his family. But faced with the appalling loss of his possessions, his children, and finally his own health, Job still refused to curse God. And his prosperity was restored in the end.

"To put things in perspective," my brother said as we were driving away, "we create that much joy two to three times a month in Kentucky, four times a month in Louisiana, and four times a month in North Carolina."


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