'Starting over is going to be so hard': Kentucky tornado victims feeling forgotten two months after the storm
Is the money going to those who need it most or to those who are most resilient and know how to operate in a system designed to fail?
It's been two months since an EF-4 tornado ripped through western Kentucky, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. Seventy-seven people were killed, and hundreds of others were left without a home.
Immediately, assistance started pouring into the state including thousands of volunteers, federal agencies, and donations in the tens of millions were handed over from all over the country.
So why now, two months later, do many survivors say they're still not getting the help they need to start over?
The Victims: Thousands say they are without
Clarkdale Court is a short, dead-end street near the heart of Dawson Springs. On Dec. 10, 2021, the apartments on the street were public housing and home to families living on a fixed income.
The next morning, December 11, all that was left of the street was a trail of rubble and debris.
"It breaks my heart to see the shambles that it is now,” Deloris Williams said, “It’s hard to know that this was your home. And now there's nothing left."
Williams is a grandmother who lived alone with her dog Sassy. She said after hearing the warning on the news, she grabbed Sassy and hid in the bathroom.
“She was trying to get out of my arms when the wind blew us and I thought, 'Sassy if we die together, we'll die together, if we fly, we'll fly together but baby I'm not letting you go.'"
Williams described the sound of the storm, the howl as it approached and the force of the winds that she said lifted her from her bathroom, spun her around and dropped her back down. Then, she felt a dresser fall on top of her.
Williams described the moments when she realized she and Sassy had survived, "I could hardly make a sound. My mouth was full of trash and garbage and my baby here."
She said it took first responders about an hour to find her underneath the rubble.
“I heard somebody holler ‘Keep beating, we hear you, keep beating’ and then they finally heard the sound,” she said.
Once she got out, she didn’t go back for five days. The first time she returned, she said she was at a loss for words. Two months later, the words still haven’t returned.
"What do you say? What do you do? There's nothing you can say. Just thank God you're alive,” Williams said.
All that’s left on the property where she lived is a mound of memories. Her home has been reduced to debris on the side of the street, waiting to be hauled away.
"Starting over is going to be so hard because there's not a lot to start with," Williams said.
Seventy miles away in Mayfield, Misty Drew shared a similar story. She hid with her children and niece in a closet while an EF-4 tornado tore through her home. Her husband couldn’t fit in the closet, so he had to take shelter in the bathroom.
After the storm passed, she opened the closet door and found the roof to her home was gone. Walls had fallen in around her. She left that night with nothing but the clothes on her back and, at the direction of city officials, has not been back since.
'It’s been hectic and stressful and we're constantly worrying what we're going to do next,” Drew said.
Her house was deemed uninhabitable. So, she said she had to dip into her savings to get an apartment in nearby Paducah, so she can keep her job at a Mayfield daycare.
"We called FEMA and was denied and then we called the Red Cross and was denied as well,” Drew said, "We should've got help. There's plenty of people who should've got help."
Back in Dawson Springs, Williams said she received funding from FEMA and the Red Cross totaling $5,000 to replace everything she owned.
"We as a community, we'd just like to know where the millions and millions of dollars have landed," Williams said, “I don't think that's an unfair question, I really don’t."
The Money: Where is the promised help?
With millions donated to help victims of the Western Kentucky tornadoes and millions more promised in federal relief, it’s hard to believe anyone is still feeling forgotten.
Since the beginning, money has been donated to hundreds of different organizations but much of it has funneled back to one of three funds -- The American Red Cross, FEMA and the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund. Each agency agreed to answer questions about the money, transparency and unmet needs in western Kentucky right now.
Team Western Kentucky Relief Fund
The Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund has raised more than $41 million. So far, the state has spent $770,000 on victims' funeral expenses. Governor Andy Beshear said additional spending will take time, with the hope that the money will last beyond what’s available through other agencies right now.
Governor Andy Beshear said, "There are a lot of wonderful organizations on the ground right now and we thank all of them, but they're going to be needed elsewhere when disaster strikes in different places. So, our goal is to make sure we can be there month six to month 24 to make sure we can meet the needs and even the unanticipated needs of these families.”
Next, the state promised payments to the uninsured, including 10% on top of what was promised by FEMA.
Shay McAlister: What about those homeowners that did have insurance? A lot of them feel like they did the right thing, the responsible thing and they're kind of being looked over right now.
Andy Beshear: We are starting with the uninsured because they need more help immediately because, thankfully, we're getting a good response from insurers, better than anticipated and it’s good to see. But our hope is we'll be able to extend that additional 10% to insured homeowners and insured renters and I believe we're going to be able to do that.
It’s a process he said will take time. That’s where the fear creeps in.
Shay McAlister: There is certainly a fear of a lack of transparency - a fear that this money is not going to the tornado survivors. How will you make those records available throughout the process, so the public doesn't have to wait years - once all the money is spent - to find out how it was spent?
Andy Beshear: At any point, if anybody wants to know the expenditures, we've made they can find out quickly. We can document every single cent, where it’s going and the public is going to be able to see that. This is the most transparent fund, not just because we're committed to doing it but because it’s a matter of law.
He said those records are available right now through open records requests. He also said they are considering a website to document the expenditures.
Shay McAlister: There are so many ways to find out how to donate to the Tornado Relief Fund. But it’s not so clear to find out how to get the help. What do people need to know if they want to apply, or they feel like they need assistance?
Andy Beshear: Apply for FEMA. That's the way and the method that you do it. If you apply for FEMA, you are not going to have to do anything else to get a reward from the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund.
Shay McAlister: But it could take months. Should those people be getting more help from the state and the relief fund right now?
Andy Beshear: The challenge is, if someone hasn't gone through the FEMA process or the Red Cross process, you haven't proven your harm. Setting up an entirely different process on the state level would mean that people have to go through three separate processes instead of focusing on getting through, for us especially, the FEMA one. If you have been harmed, that money is coming to you, and not someone else trying to take advantage of the system.
While people wait for that money from the relief fund, he suggests they look for boots on the ground agencies ready and willing to help right now.
American Red Cross
In the first 24 to 48 hours after the storm, the American Red Cross was on the ground offering help. The agency brought in volunteers from around the country, set up shelters, paid for food and organized food delivery, handed out relief items, offered mental and spiritual help, and moved people into non-congregate shelters, such as lodges and hotels.
"People from all over the nation were so very good to Western Kentucky so those donations are still being tallied at this time and we are still working towards where are we in that process,” Misty Thomas said.
Thomas is the executive director for the Western Kentucky chapter of the Red Cross. She said the organization has handed out $2 million in cash to 2,200 households in aid in recovery, served 73,000 meals, and distributed 41,000 relief items so far.
She added that more than 100 trained disaster relief workers on still on the ground today.
Shay McAlister: "What do you say to people who feel skeptical that the money is going to people who really need it?"
Misty Thomas: “I would say that we’ve been here for 140 years and what we do we do really well. I have watched that take place here in Western Kentucky and you can feel good about your money being donated."
Thomas said every donation designated for use in Western Kentucky, will be used to aid in this disaster. "We always want to be very transparent with the donor dollars and those matrixes will be on redcross.org,” she said.
Shay McAlister: What about people who have already turned to the Red Cross and were denied? Told they didn't qualify for help, but they say they still need help?
Misty Thomas: What we would like for you to do is ask for an appeal and you can go back to the case worksite, or you can call the number you go through, email or text and ask them to do a re-assessment on your property.
Thomas said many people will likely “win” in the appeal process, after getting their property reassessed.
"In the initial damage assessment, the site lines might not have been very clear. There's been a lot of debris removal, so we've been able to do some re-assessments. We've had some appeals come through and we've been able to declare those as major damage and that is where the financial assistance comes into play,” Thomas said.
The Red Cross isn't the only agency asking rejected survivors to try again, through an appeals process.
"We have found that people who are persistent, that will go through the process, complete the application process, go through the appeals process, they are usually very successful”, La-Tanga Hopes, a FEMA spokesperson, said.
According to Hopes, FEMA has approved more than $11.2 million through the ‘Individuals and Households Program’, including more than $7.9 million for housing assistance and more than $3.2 million for other needs.
The federal agency has received more than 14,000 applications, meaning 14,000 people have asked for help. A spokesperson would not say how many applications have been approved, how many people have received payouts or how many people are still waiting in limbo.
"The wheel ain't broke, there's no need to fix it. We're allowing the process to continue to unfold. We're allowing the recovery process to continue to move forward. And appeal is the only thing you need to do,” Hopes said.
Shay McAlister: When we're talking about this community and these families who have lost everything, do you feel like some of the frustration is warranted when it comes to getting denied initially and then getting asked to appeal?
La-Tanga Hopes: It's warranted. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes. We would want help now. Not later. We would want a response now, not later.
Hopes also offered advice for the appeals process. She said the federal agency is looking for keywords of a sort when reviewing applications.
"We are looking for information that will [help us] understand or determine if your house is safe, if your house is sanitary, if your house is functional. So, when you're completing your application be sure to write ‘my home is not safe because…’” Hopes explained.
She said right now FEMA is focused on requests for essential needs and essential living spaces.
"If you tell us there's a hole in your roof, we can help you. If you tell us that your game room and the toys that are in the game were impacted, we may want to send you to see somebody else in a different service because we understand the value on that, but it may not fall into the safe, sanitary, and functional category,” Hopes said.
For those who don’t qualify for FEMA, Hopes suggested looking into a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration. So far, the agency has awarded $21 million in disaster loans to homeowners, renters, businesses and some non-profits.
“Even if you’ve not had physical damage if you’re a business, but you’ve had an economic injury with working capital, you would be eligible for that loan,” Sally Graham with the SBA explained.
Recovery: Where do we go from here?
The appeals process begs the question: is the money going to those who need it most or to those who are most resilient and know how to operate in a system designed to fail and require an appeal?
Beshear said it’s not set up for failure, but instead to ensure those who need the money most are the ones receiving it.
“Yes, there's a process but that's to make sure you - the person who is harmed and needs help - and somebody else doesn't steal those dollars,” he said.
Right now, the state’s primary push is for people to register with FEMA. For those who have already applied, like Deloris Williams, the wait continues.
"You pray tomorrow that the day will be better, the sun's going to shine brighter, and they'll maybe be a song in your heart and pep in your step again. That's what you hope for," she said.
For now, hope will have to be enough.
FEMA announced Thursday it is extending its deadline for filing claims to Sunday, March 13. The extension is for homeowners and renters with uninsured or underinsured damage to their property from the Dec. 10-11 tornadoes.
If you live in one of the following counties--you now have another month to get your paperwork filed in order to receive disaster assistance:
You can also visit one of the on-site FEMA centers in Western Kentucky, oll 1-800-621-3362.
The state also offers a list of resources such as document replacement, construction help, or disaster unemployment, to address specific needs.
RELATED: 77 killed, 160+ miles of terror and destruction | It's been one month since the deadly western Kentucky tornadoes
Contact reporter Shay McAlister at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Shay) and Facebook.
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