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Opinion A devastated Kentucky town is grateful for help but fears what will happen when the reporters are gone

A tattered flag flies at half staff in front of the damaged Graves County Courthouse in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 15. (Austin Anthony for The Washington Post)
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Bill Bartleman reported for 39 years for the Paducah (Ky.) Sun newspaper, often covering events in Mayfield. He works for a Mayfield-based telecommunications company and serves as a county commissioner in neighboring McCracken County.

MAYFIELD, Ky. — The 10,000 residents of this conservative, 200-year-old community are in shock as they survey the devastation left by the tornado that ripped through their town last weekend. Grim-faced or tearful, they silently drive and walk down Broadway, circle the court square and continue on residential streets to get a first-hand look at the piles of brick and rubble that used to be buildings, the bare lots once shaded by trees. They often stop to hug passing neighbors, friends and even strangers. No words are needed.

But amid the tragedy and heartache, there are uplifting acts of kindness, hope and optimism. The region, state and nation have rallied around western Kentucky.

As dawn broke Dec. 11, just hours after the tornado passed, people from nearby communities already were asking how they could help. Churches, businesses and individuals began organizing to collect food, clothing and other necessary items. Volunteers showed up to clear debris. Rescue squads, police officers, firefighters and utility workers arrived.

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More than 200 high school students from neighboring McCracken County volunteered to distribute food and other items to homeless residents — certainly learning more about life than they would have in class.

Help came from sources large and small. A family in Paducah made barbecue to feed rescue workers. Out-of-town groups specializing in feeding the masses were in Mayfield in less than a day — Mercy Chefs of Portsmouth, Va., Operation BBQ Relief of Kansas City, Mo., Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief team volunteers, Tyson Foods and others.

When the director of the local senior citizens center, destroyed in the storm, put out a plea for hot meals like those it normally serves the elderly, it took less than 20 minutes for other senior centers to pledge more than 2,000 meals.

Gov. Andy Beshear (D) visited the area three times in less than a week. On Thursday, he announced that a state website set up to accept donations had received $14.8 million from 94,507 donors. Some of the first allocations will help pay for funerals of those who died. The governor’s wife, Britainy Beshear, announced a Christmas toy drive Monday, and by Thursday, more than 70,000 toys, games, bikes, gift cards and other items had been donated at drop-off points around the state. President Biden visited Wednesday and offered encouragement and promises of aid as he stopped to talk to residents.

Those and many more caring efforts are helping to overcome the community’s sense of loss. But the terrible reality is everywhere, overwhelming.

A painted sign that survived the whirlwinds urges the public to visit downtown because it’s “more than a memory.” But in fact, memories are all that remain. The bricks-and-mortar heart of the community is gone.

The Graves County Courthouse, built in 1888, is ripped apart. A couple of blocks away, the recently renovated 102-year-old United Methodist Church is a jumbled mess of pews, brick and remnants of its historic pipe organ. The First Baptist Church, built in 1929, is gutted.

Carr’s Steakhouse, located in a century-old building that originally housed a buggy company, is a pile of bricks. The family-owned eatery served as a daytime gathering place for locals to talk politics, world problems and the Mayfield High School football team, which has won a dozen state championships.

Forever etched in everyone’s memories is the human tragedy that took place in a candle factory here, where 110 low-wage employees were working the late shift to earn cash for the holidays. The roof of the massive Mayfield Consumer Products building collapsed, trapping them under steel beams, block walls and other rubble. Volunteers rallied to help rescue the workers, some of whom told gut-wrenching stories of tunneling through twisted steel.

Beshear, during a visit to Mayfield just hours after the tornado, asked for prayers for 50-some workers then unaccounted for. Five days later, when only eight were confirmed dead, the governor called it a “Christmas miracle.”

A Kentucky neighborhood was a haven for refugees. Then the tornado struck.

While the immediate outside support is uplifting and inspiring, the concern here is that help and encouragement remain for the long term. The daily needs won’t go away anytime soon. Many giving a helping hand today will soon return home to resume their normal lives.

Meanwhile, a water tower was destroyed and power will take months to restore because of damaged transmission lines and utility poles. With as many as 3,000 homes damaged or destroyed, housing also is a challenging long-term need.

Still, there is confidence the community will come back, somehow. Mayfield residents are resilient, faithful people, proud of their roots and small-town heritage. They want Mayfield to survive.

Asked what the greatest need is for the future, County Judge Executive Jesse Perry said, “Prayer, prayer and more prayer.” There is optimism here that those prayers will restore their lives and their community, though it will take time.

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