Documenting Devastation

A photojournalist's memoire of surviving 'the worst tornado event in state history'

By Grace Ramey,

 

To record, perhaps for my own peace of mind, the events of Dec. 11, 2021, and the days following:

     At about 1:15 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 11, 2021, I awoke to alerts sounding on my phone sitting on top of my night stand and sirens blaring outside. Growing up in Indiana, I've heard sirens go off frequently and never been worried. Rather, my mom and I would go outside to watch the storm roll in. This morning felt different.

     Maybe it was the drowsiness of being woken abruptly in the middle of the night or the Holy Spirit guiding me, but I went to retrieve my friend, who was visiting for the weekend, and we searched for a place downstairs in my townhome to settle in until the storm passed. I called my boyfriend, who lives at an apartment complex down the road, and kept him on the line so we could know we were each safe. Within what felt like seconds, the wind picked up drastically. My building ominously creaked. My garage door sounded as if any second it would fly off its tracks. My front door banged as debris slammed the front of my building. The wind whistled as it blew harder and harder. Truly, a sound like a freight train...

    One of my two dogs, Holly, darted throughout my home in a panic, up and down the stairs, searching for a safe place to take cover. I called out to her repeatedly, begging her to come to me, my friend and my other dog. All I remember of those few minutes, looking back, is feeling as though any second the top floor of my home would be ripped off, I'd see the night sky and know I'd never see my Holly again. 

    Eventually, Holly came to me and I gripped her collar until the wind died down. Then, it seemed silent. Knowing what just happened was not just normal wind gusts, my friend and I walked slowly to the front door, cracked it open to see the extent of the damage and our jaws dropped.

    With only the flashes of lightning to illuminate the horror around us, we saw my next-door neighbor's house gaped open to its first floor, its skeleton torn open to expose its interior. Pouring rain drenched what remained.

    Beyond her home were dozens more in even worse condition. I remember so clearly thinking, "This can't be real. This only happens in movies. I have to still be upstairs in my bed dreaming this horrific dream."

    After that initial sobering sight, what I remember most about those first few minutes is the inescapable scent of wet, muddy wood. It's a smell I can still recall today, and I feel it will take me awhile to forget it. It's not like a bonfire or a construction site or a forest of trees. It's a smell of devastation and loss.

    What I didn't notice in those long seconds after opening the front door was that my Holly darted out into the dark cascade of rain. I screamed out for her, sobs welling in my throat. I asked all my neighbors, who also came outside to assess the damage, if they'd seen her, if they could check in their garages that had been exposed in the tornado, if they would let me know if they see her. My boyfriend, still on speaker phone as he fought to make his way into the neighborhood to be here with me, tried to reassure me we'd find her. But with each passing minute, I felt more sure I'd never see her again. Even more so a neighbor down the street said, "You have to get back inside, they're saying there's a second tornado." I wept as my friend guided me back to my front patio and I begged God to keep her safe.

     Firemen, police officers and other first responders from not only our city but neighboring towns and counties streamed into the neighborhood what seemed to be minutes after the storm passed and began to go door-to-door, calling out for survivors and clearing homes in the torrential rain. Their trucks' lights began to illuminate the scene even more, revealing more horrors. Homes down my street for as far as I could see in the dark rain were gone. Only fragments of roofs, shredded wood and piles of insulation remained. I heard voices calling for loved ones and screaming for help. 

    Standing on my front patio and watching these brave men and women spring into action encouraged me to do the same, in my own way. I knew I needed to document this. I ran inside, changed out of my cold, drenched clothes, grabbed one of my cameras and returned to my front patio. With the rain still falling in heavy waves, I couldn't move far from the cover of the patio, but fortunately — or, unfortunately — much destruction was visible from where I stood.

     I photographed firemen repeatedly checking my neighbor's home, as well as the home behind her, which was equally as damaged, and spray paint markings on the walls to alert other first responders that the broken buildings had been checked. I photographed firemen, policemen and neighbors filling the street about a block down from me and sensing tragedy had settled there. 

     As frequently as the rain subsided and picked back up, I switched back and forth between photographing the scenes around me and desperately searching for my dog. I kept hoping I'd turn around and she'd be running up to me. But she didn't and my heart sank more and more. I sent a tweet out with her photo, hoping just one person had come across her, and in a matter of minutes this amazing community had shared, liked and commented on the tweet hundreds of times. If you were one of those lovely people, bless you.

    Once the rain came to a near stop, I ventured out to walk a large circle in my area of the neighborhood to call out for Holly. I brought my camera with me, knowing I'd see more destruction with each step. And I was right. After rounding the corner of the building I saw homes all the way down the street with some form of destruction. Broken windows, missing roofs, vehicles bent and contorted in sickening ways, wet insulation clinging to everything, wood and other debris covering the street and neighbors walking around in their pajamas in shock.

     And so I photographed as I walked, creating as many images as I could, not only because I knew we were going to need photos for the breaking news stories inevitably to come of this night, but also for my ease of mind. It seemed as though each time I brought the camera up to my eye, it formed a sort of barrier between me and the devastation around me. It helped me keep some of the shock and grief at bay until a later time when I could begin to handle it. My camera helped me compartmentalize the personal disaster I had to face so I could do my job and inform my community. 

     After what felt like an eternity of unsuccessfully hunting for my Holly, I returned home, resigning myself to the fact I wouldn't have any luck until the sun came up. I changed into another set of dry clothes and joined my friend on my couch in an effort to get a blink of sleep. As I tried to drift off, I cried out to God to protect us, as well as Holly, my boyfriend, my family and everyone in our city. I begged Him to let no more harm come our way. I asked Him to please not let it be as bad once the sun rose. And I pleaded that He would guide Holly to someone who would keep her safe until I could get to her, or give her the instinct to come home. 

     And God heard my prayer. Before I had even finished praying, I heard a faint whine at my door, a whine I have heard hundreds of times before when she's been hungry or needed to go potty or is bored. Wondering if it had been a figment of my imagination — wishful thinking, perhaps — I waited to hear it again. Once again, I heard the faint whine and ran to my front door. I wish I could describe for you the overwhelming joy, peace and relief I felt as I opened the door to see my Holly, drenched and covered in mud, pushing her way inside. I hugged her tight, not caring that my third set of clothes since I had gone to bed the night before became wet and muddy. Finally, I could rest. 

     A few hours later, the sun rose and my friend and I went out to walk the neighborhood and photograph more damage. In the darkness of the night, I hadn't truly grasped the extent of the destruction around me. The daylight now illuminated that. 

     I spoke to neighbors whose homes were wrecked with little remaining. I saw hundreds of volunteers arrive to help, wondering how they'd managed to get here so fast. I began to hear word of fatalities, not yet knowing just how close they were. And I cried. A lot.

     I don't remember much of the days following, other than the aftermath of the storm was all there was to cover for work. Updates on fatalities. Photos of destruction and on-going searches. Federal, state and local officials being present to offer help. Leading officials with FEMA, American Red Cross, Samaritan's Purse and other disaster organizations arriving to provide relief and shelter. Volunteers from all over the surrounding states, from organizations like the International Disaster Emergency Service in Indiana and too many church ministries to count, coming in to provide food, clothing, prayers and hugs. Families sharing their stories of survival. And what touched my heart most of all — the countless stories of gratitude, generosity and love from people who lost everything.  

     Eventually, we received the confirmed reports of what happened that morning. Three confirmed tornadoes had touched down in Warren County. An EF-3 tornado with wind speeds of up to 140 mph first touched down in Logan County just south of me and traveled about 28 miles before ending in western Warren County. A second EF-3 is what hit my neighborhood off Creekwood Avenue in Bowling Green, as well as the businesses and homes along Russellville Road and the 31-W Bypass, stretching a span of just under 30 miles. And an EF-2 with wind speeds up to 115 mph caused heavy damage to the NCM Motorsports Park on the northeast side of town and the surrounding area. 

     The National Weather Service has said it was one of the rarest storms the region has ever seen, especially with it being in December. The line of storms that first hit the region late Dec. 10 was over 300 miles long, producing dozens tornadoes across the state and other states. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called it the worst tornado event in state history.

     Last I heard, there were 78 confirmed fatalities in Kentucky, 17 of which were in Warren County. Twelve of those lives were taken on my street — seven in the Brown family and 5 in the Besics family. I had walked past their homes a handful of times before that morning on casual neighborhood walks but never met them. I now wish I had. I know our community mourns their lives deeply. 

     As I've watched our community rebuild, I praise God every day that more lives weren't claimed and that, even though I was without power and water for nearly two months, my home still stands. My Holly came home and was unharmed. I know all my loved ones are safe and healthy. And I know the only reason I am still here to tell this story is because of the mercy and protection of my God. 

"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by."

- Psalm 57:1

"The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,

You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.

Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

     - Psalm 23

 

 

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes; with your right hand you save me."

     - Psalm 138-:7