MAYFIELD, Ky. — Jimmy Finch hauled rare commodities into Mayfield in the predawn hours Sunday morning: hot food and optimism for a community reeling from the deaths and destruction wrought by the worst tornado event in Kentucky’s history.
“Y’all come on in, we got free food!” Finch called from behind the smoker perched on a trailer.
A family whose wrecked home sat next to the vacant former gas station lot where Finch had set up his grill took plates of food and drinks, thanking Finch and seeming relieved to take a break from the hours they had spent sifting through what remained of their home.
Finch did not ask where people were from or what had happened — he only asked what they wanted to eat. Throughout the day, bleary-eyed families with children filled paper plates with the day’s meal while volunteer cleanup crews and workers with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet grabbed a burger before heading back to clear more debris.
“Some people are in good spirits — just the fact of us being here is enough to lift people up,” Finch told The Washington Post. “Others are more sensitive and emotional, and they have more to deal with.”
Finch said he has no ties to Mayfield — he lives an hour and a half away and has never been hit by a devastating tornado. But the decision to borrow a relative’s smoker and drive in the dark so he could start lighting coals by 4:30 a.m. was a simple one.
“Everybody was bringing everything to town except food,” said Finch. Many residents had already left town for Paducah or Murray or nearby areas not so hard-hit. Finch was particularly worried about those who do not have the resources to get a hotel or stay with family members.
“I’m just here because not everybody has money,” Finch said. “But people want food, people need food.”
The Moss family had a similar idea. The large clan of Mayfield natives gathered at the decommissioned gas station where Anthony Moss’s food truck was parked next to Finch. Moss had bought the truck from his uncle and renamed it “Upper Level,” selling ribs, chicken and ice cream in the summertime. The small truck had emerged from the tornado unscathed, which family members said was their sign that they needed to open it and start feeding their neighbors.
“This truck survived for a reason,” said Rhonda Moss-Levelle, who now lives in Paducah. “God had a purpose for this truck.” Finch said he had initially set up on a different corner but was bombarded by camera crews wanting to film him, forcing him to relocate. He pulled into the empty lot just as the Mosses were pulling in behind him.
“I was about to tell them they were in my spot,” he said, laughing about not having realized that the family owned the space. “What was awesome was we didn’t even plan that.”
With no power in town and many people without charged cellphones, word of the barbecue corner spread by mouth. Residents came by to share the contents of their freezers before breakfast sausages and pork chops spoiled in their unpowered homes.
Former Mayfield residents such as Jeff Thompson — a childhood friend of one of the Moss siblings — pulled into the lot with a trunk filled with paper towels and cases of water.
Dennis Moss on Monday said more people came later in the day to give cash, cleaning supplies and more food to share. The outpouring, he said, has been a bright spot amid the heartbreak of seeing his hometown, where much of his family still lives, unrecognizable.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Dennis Moss, who now lives in Atlanta but was in town to visit his mother days before the storm. “Every time I see the damage I cry.”
The family was set up again Monday, along with Finch. Neither had any idea how long they would keep going; Finch said he was paying for the food out of his own pocket and would continue until he could not afford to.
“If it comes back to me, it comes back to me, if it don’t, it don’t,” Finch said with a shrug.
He plans to stay in Mayfield to help however he can.
“It might not be a bad idea to move to Mayfield,” he said. “Small people are going to help build it back.”
“When I run out of money to pay for food, I have an 18-foot trailer I’m going to bring and help people haul stuff away.”