FRANKFURT, Ky. — Chris Bullock has plenty to be thankful for as she decorates her new home for Christmas, having spent much of the past year in a motorhome with her family.
A year ago on Saturday, a massive tornado wiped out large swathes of her hometown of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, leaving her homeless after a terrifying night of death and destruction.
Things seem quite different now.
In August, Bullock and his family moved into their new home, built for free by disaster relief group God’s Pit Crew. It sits on the same site where their 26-year-old home was demolished.
“God sent us blessings,” Bullock said in a phone interview Friday. “Sometimes we feel there’s a bit of guilt, if you will. Why were we spared?
The holiday season tragedy killed 81 people in Kentucky and turned buildings into mounds of rubble as damage reached hundreds of millions of dollars. Elsewhere in the state, Mayfield was directly hit by December’s tornado swarm, which left a wide trail of destroyed buildings and shredded trees. In Bowling Green, a tornado wiped out an entire housing estate.
It was part of a massive tornado outbreak across the Midwest and South.
In Dawson Springs and other Kentucky towns in the storms’ path, homes and businesses have popped up steadily in recent months. Government aid, private donations and reimbursements from insurers poured into the western Kentucky disaster area.
“It’s more than encouraging,” said Jenny Beshear Sewell, the mayor-elect of Dawson Springs and cousin of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. “In a storybook, it’s like moving on to the next chapter. That’s what it feels like. That’s what it looks like.
On Saturday, the governor will lead memorial events remembering the horrific early chapters of the tragedy. Rallies in Dawson Springs, Mayfield and Marshall County will remember those who died and honor the rescue workers who pulled people from the wreckage – as well as the volunteers who helped in the massive rebuilding.
“Nothing I’ve ever seen prepared me for what I saw at first light that day,” Beshear said ahead of the birthday. “As we continue to mourn those we have lost, my faith tells me that even though we may struggle with the why – why does it hit us, why do human beings suffer – we see the presence of God in the response.
Beshear’s family has deep ties to Dawson Springs. The Democratic governor’s father, former two-term governor Steve Beshear, grew up in the tight-knit community of western Kentucky.
The devastation sparked an outpouring of love and help that began almost as soon as daylight revealed the extent of the damage. Beshear, who led the state’s response, said the effort should restore “everyone’s faith in humanity.”
A year later, help continues to arrive.
But many victims of the storm continue to struggle, including some of Bullock’s neighbors who lost homes and loved ones. Others are not as advanced in rebuilding. Still, progress is steady and Bullock said it “warms the heart” to see his neighborhood come together.
“For the most part, the same people are in the same place where they belong, in our view,” she said. “We are where we belong.”
Bullock recalls in detail the harrowing chain of events from a year ago.
She rushed to the basement with husband Barry, 17-year-old son Stevie and miniature poodle Dewey moments before the storm hit.
“They say it was 33 seconds,” she said. “It was like 33 minutes.”
Bullock was trapped under a crumbling brick wall in the basement with her son and dog. Her husband pulled them from the rubble with minor injuries. Amid the chaos and destruction, it took relatives around 10 hours to find them. They moved into an RV near the site of their home for six months, waiting for their new home to come up and spending the rest of the time with relatives.
Bullock said she wasn’t sure whether to attend the memorial event in town.
“I feel like I’ve handled everything really well, but the closer it gets to tomorrow (Saturday), when it crosses my mind, it kind of takes my breath away,” she said.
Bullock admitted that Christmas brings a mixture of feelings amid so many ongoing struggles – “Why are we going to be in our house for Christmas?” while others are not – but said she and her husband always did everything for the holidays. They said bending down to do some of the things they love is a bit like taking a stand.
So she went “overboard” stringing Christmas lights on their new home and bought lots of new decorations, but said it would be a while before the display was fully revived.
“I can’t make it look like this yet,” she said. “We’ll have to wait another year.”