Chris Bullock has a lot to be thankful for as she decorates her new home for Christmas, after spending much of the past year in a motorhome with her family.
A year ago Saturday, a massive tornado destroyed large parts of her hometown of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, leaving her homeless after a terrifying night of death and destruction.
Things look very different now.
In August, Bullock and her family moved into their new home, built for free by disaster relief group God’s Pit Crew. It’s on the same spot where their home of 26 years was swept away.
“God has sent us blessings,” Bullock said in a telephone interview Friday. “Sometimes we feel like there’s a little bit of guilt, if you will. Why were we spared?”
The holiday tragedy claimed the lives of 81 people across Kentucky and turned buildings into rubble while damage ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Elsewhere in the state, Mayfield took a direct hit from the December swarm of tornadoes, leaving a wide trail of destroyed buildings and shredded trees. In Bowling Green, a tornado wiped out an entire subdivision.
It was part of a massive tornado outbreak across the Midwest and South.
In Dawson Springs and other Kentucky towns in the path of the storms, homes and businesses have sprung up steadily in recent months. Government aid, private donations and claims payouts from insurers have poured into the stricken western region of Kentucky.
“It’s beyond encouraging,” said Jenny Beshear Sewell, the mayor-elect of Dawson Springs and a cousin of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “In a storybook, it’s like the turn to the next chapter. That’s how it feels. It looks like this.”
On Saturday, the governor will lead commemorative events that recall the horrific early chapters of the tragedy. The rallies in Dawson Springs, Mayfield and Marshall County will remember the dead and pay tribute to the rescuers who pulled people from the wreckage – as well as the volunteers who contributed to the massive rebuild.
“Nothing I’ve ever seen had prepared me for what I saw at first light that day,” Beshear said ahead of the birthday celebration. why – why does it affect us, why do people suffer – we see God’s presence in the answer.
Beshear’s family has deep ties to Dawson Springs. The Democratic governor’s father, former two-year governor Steve Beshear, grew up in the close-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 full year later, the help keeps coming.
But many storm victims continue to struggle, including some Bullock neighbors who have lost homes and loved ones. Others are not nearly as far with reconstruction. Still, progress is steady, and Bullock said it “warms your heart” to see her neighborhood come back together.
“For the most part, the same people are in the same place where they belong, in our opinion,” she said. “We are where we belong.”
Bullock recalls in great detail the harrowing sequence of events from a year ago.
She hurried to the basement with her husband Barry, 17-year-old son Stevie, and miniature poodle Dewey just before the storm hit.
“They say it was 33 seconds,” she said. “It felt like 33 minutes.”
Bullock was trapped under a crumbling brick wall in the basement with her son and dog. She pulled her husband out of the rubble with minor injuries. Amidst the chaos and destruction, it took relatives about 10 hours to find them. They moved into an RV near their home for six months, waiting for their new house to be ready, and spent the rest of the time with relatives.
Bullock said she wasn’t sure if she would attend the memorial in town.
“I feel like I’ve made it through everything really well, but the closer it gets to tomorrow (Saturday), when it crosses my mind, I’m a little out of breath,” she said.
Bullock admitted that Christmas brings a mix of feelings in the midst of so much constant struggle – “Why are we coming into our house for Christmas?” while others aren’t — but said she and her husband have always pulled out all the stops for the holidays. said that leaning in to do some of the things they enjoy feels a bit like taking a stand.
So she went “overboard” by stringing Christmas lights on their new house and buying lots of new decorations, but said it will take time to fully revive the display.
“I can’t make it look like that yet,” she said. “It will have to wait another year.”