The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Surviving the tornado that ripped through my Kentucky bedroom

A message spray painted on a house damaged by the tornado that passed by Moss Creek Avenue in Bowling Green, Ky., on Dec. 14. (Austin Anthony for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Cole Douglas Claybourn is a freelance journalist, podcaster and high school teacher in Bowling Green, Ky.

I spent the evening of Dec. 10 and early hours of Dec. 11 glued to my Twitter feed and local news coverage, nerves on edge as I watched the storms approaching Kentucky. I tried to distract myself, but I simply couldn’t.

“I’m legitimately scared. I’m so anxious,” I texted my wife, Emily, who was visiting friends in Louisville, about 100 miles from our home in Bowling Green. Nestled on the couch with our two cats, I watched the TV meteorologist describe a storm cell forming a tornado in northern Tennessee.

In just a few hours, that tornado would be ripping through my bedroom.

My whole life, I’ve been somewhat of a weather nerd; what I usually get from severe weather is an adrenaline rush. But all that day, I had a bad feeling about these storms. Call it intuition, godly discernment, whatever — part of the anxiety was certainly a result of being apart from Emily — but something just felt unusually ominous.

My intuition was unfortunately correct. By 10 p.m., much of western Kentucky had been ravaged by tornadoes that had leveled homes, destroyed businesses and showed no signs of stopping.

This was the first time in my life I’d felt any unease about a storm. It was also the first time that I took the official warnings and directions seriously, and that probably is what saved my life.

About 1 a.m., I loaded the cats in their carriers and headed for the closet in our basement. Soon after, I lost the local news feed I’d been watching on my laptop. Then went the Internet and the power. Next came an eerie silence that probably didn't last more than a few seconds but felt like minutes. Then, suddenly, a deafening pounding of rain and hail, followed by a cacophony of crashing and rumbling sounds. Still, I didn’t want to believe that the worst of it had come right to my doorstep.

I stayed below ground level for about five more minutes until I heard the door to the basement slam shut, which told me that some part of my house had been blown open. Slowly, fearfully, I climbed the stairs. When I finally opened the basement door, I saw a gaping hole in our laundry room attached to our bathroom, with splintered wood, drywall and insulation everywhere. What was left of the ceiling in our bedroom couldn’t keep out the rain, which was pouring into the room and onto our bed.

I scurried to move what I could into other parts of the house. I didn’t sleep the entire night. Turns out you can experience a nightmare, even when you’re awake.

Still, I didn’t completely realize that a tornado — the tornado — had ravaged my whole neighborhood until I stepped outside into the relentlessly pouring rain, when flashlights up and down the block illuminated the wreckage.

When daylight broke, the true magnitude of the devastation was visible. A hundred yards or so from my house, my neighbor B.J.’s house was leveled. By 7 a.m., B.J. was more concerned with helping his neighbors than dealing with his own home’s destruction.

In Trump country, a willingness to set aside politics as Biden visits

B.J. embodied the spirit that this entire community has shown in the days since the storms hit. By Saturday afternoon, a team of church volunteers whom I’d never met had arrived to clean the debris and tree limbs out of our yard. Others brought food and water. Colleagues drove their cars to me so I could charge my phone.

All over the state, Kentuckians have shown up — whether it was with a chain saw, a wallet, or a hug — to take care of their own. Scores of local sports teams, school organizations, and churches have flooded the streets with volunteers.

Emily was, thankfully, unharmed in Louisville, and when she got home we shared a long hug in the middle of our battered street. For months, she and I had been saying to each other that we really need to get to know our neighbors better. This was a terrible way for it to happen, but we certainly have accomplished that.

It will take months, perhaps years, for us to completely recover from this disaster. For some families, there will be no true recovery. Fifteen people in Bowling Green, including two entire families, have been confirmed dead because of the storm — just one part of the tragedy that ran roughshod across the state. I simply cannot fathom the pain that those people are experiencing.

But what we can all cling to — what I am clinging to — is faith in God and faith in this community. In these people. In my neighbors.

Kentucky, with its famed tradition of horse breeding and racing, has an unofficial motto — “Unbridled Spirit.” Here’s how one local enterprise defines it: “As with thoroughbred horses, it can mean unrestrained, uninhibited, and unstoppable.”

Unstoppable. That sounds a lot like the Kentuckians I’ve seen this week.