DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky. — A quaint downtown marks the heart of Dawson Springs, located just two hours south of Louisville. Signs of strength hang from local businesses like the American flag hanging proud above the square.
In this small town of about 2,500 residents, including Governor Andy Beshear's father, damaged homes stretch in every direction.
When the sirens sounded on Dec.10, 2021, it took less than ten minutes for the tornado to tear through 75% of the town, taking down every house in its path.
Deloris Williams is one of the hundreds who lost everything in the storm.
"There's a lot of good folks here in Dawson," she said, adding that she believes the town will rally back to what it once was. "There are a lot of people that love Dawson like I do."
For the ones who stayed after the disaster, they've now been forced to redefine "home."
Rage of the tornado
The last time WHAS11 spoke with Williams, mounds of debris lined Clarkdale Court. It was February, two months after the tornado, and Williams didn't have anywhere to live.
"It was about five months before I even found a place to live," she said.
Williams had to move 25 miles away to Hopkinsville to find an apartment. Most of the affordable housing in Dawson, including her home, was destroyed.
"I truly believe if it wasn't for my cousin that helped me because he works at an apartment complex, I still would not have a place to call home," she said. "It's difficult Shay. Even though I've found an apartment with the help of my cousin, which I am truly grateful for, you don't feel like you're at home."
For Williams, home is still here in Dawson. She said even a year later, she's still finding pieces of her old home.
"It's amazing really," Williams said. "I know its probably meaningless, but to me, after all this time, I found my flag."
That flag is a reminder of so many things for Williams, the home she lost, the holiday season and the tornado that took her neighbor's life.
"I get afraid," she said. "I can't help but get afraid and I get stressed. I think, 'please God, don't let this happen again. Please don't.'"
The tornado that struck Dawson Springs was an EF-4 with wind speeds of up to 190 miles per hour and stretching more than a mile wide.
"It was so huge, it just twisted everything in a circle like a hula-hoop," Williams said.
Williams remembers the sound and the fear she felt while hiding in her bathroom.
"The rage of the tornado, it has no comfort. It has no forgiveness," she said. "It just takes what it wants. Whether you're left behind or it takes you."
Miles away, Ladonna Hooper sought shelter in her neighbor's basement. Emerging minutes later to find her own home had been hit and no longer had a roof.
"I think December 10 will always stick with us, we'll never lose that date," Hooper said.
She spent weeks with her family in a hotel before the school bus driver got a call from her superintendent asking her to meet him at this shipping container near downtown.
It was a temporary home for Hooper and her family while they waited to get their old home taken care of.
"I just started crying," she said. "I was like 'Okay, we're going to have some place where we can establish a home.'"
Inside, she lives with her family of three and everything they own. It's not ideal, Hooper says, but for now, it's home.
"A home to me is where you have your family and you have God," she said. "A home to me can be anything -- a storage container to a million dollar home -- home is what you make a home."
Hooper took WHAS11 to visit her new house, not far from the shipping container. It's being built by hundred of volunteers who come in town maybe even just for one day to help families like hers.
"We've had so many people come in and write verses on the walls and kind of bless our home," she said.
It's been a slow built, mostly relying on volunteers and donations. However, even though it's taking time, Hooper is grateful.
"We can actually see a house, we can walk in it, it has doors, it has windows," she said. "I got to thinking, life is amazing. You're alive, you survived, you get up every morning and put one foot down then the other in front of it. So, you know what, life is amazing."
When Hooper moves into her new house at the beginning of next year, another family will move into the storage container as the community is still short hundreds of houses. Many haven't even started to rebuild.
But in Dawson, there is no lack of determination, not even from the people like Williams, displaced and living in another town.
"I get excited when I think about a year from now, what can be here and what will be here," she said. "Dawson isn't going to stay like this. The people aren't going to let it stay like this."
A small community, now building back, one home at a time.
"Dawson Springs is a very special place and we stand 'Dawson Strong' all day long," Hooper said.
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