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Dealing with Disaster: What we wish we knew beforehand

Three western Kentucky officials recall their experience in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes

Even before the deadly tornado outbreak that tore through western Kentucky in December 2021, Hopkins County Judge/Executive Jack Whitfield had a good relationship with his local emergency management director. The two are friends. But they had never taken an in-depth look at their local emergency response plan.  

“I never sat down with him to ask, ‘Do we have a plan for when a tornado comes through Hopkins County?’” 

Whitfield joined Muhlenberg County Judge/Executive Curtis McGehee and Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan at the Governor’s Local Issues Conference last month to discuss lessons learned from the western Kentucky disaster. The tornadoes uprooted trees and leveled homes and businesses, resulting in catastrophic property damage across more than 20 counties and claiming the lives of 80 Kentuckians. 

McGehee said learning about the loss of the life as he drove to the small community of Bremen, a town of about 350 residents, was the most difficult part of the initial response efforts.  

“The county coroner calls me and tells me that District Judge Brian Crick had been killed in the tornado,” McGehee recalled. “I kept hearing that through the night. There’s another one, and another one, until finally there were 11 lives lost.” 

McGehee credited Muhlenberg County Sheriff William Ward with leading search and rescue efforts in Bremen. The sheriff laid out a map and quickly organized volunteers to go house by house, checking for survivors.  

“I wasn’t ready for it, but [Sheriff Ward] was prepared for that kind of event, and it helped us so very much,” McGehee said. 

Whitfield said it’s impossible to anticipate every potential problem or need in an emergency, especially in a disaster as massive as the western Kentucky tornadoes or the eastern Kentucky flooding. But having a plan and team lined up can allow officials to help more people faster. 

“Get to know your emergency management team and the other elected officials in the area,” Whitfield told county and city leaders. “If you don’t have a plan of some type, make one. If you do have a plan, look at it. Go over it, change it, adjust, make the plan better. Do tabletop exercises.” 

In the days and months that followed the tornadoes, Whitfield said support from officials in neighboring communities were a tremendous help both logistically and for his own state of mind. 

“You’re going to have a thousand people that need you, but you can’t do it by yourself. Make friends with the judges and mayors around you, because you’re going to need them,” Whitfield said. “Those relationships are probably the one thing that kept me from losing my mind and resigning my office.” 

When it came to dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the conference panelists said trying to understand the various processes involved in disaster assistance was challenging. McGehee said at times he received conflicting information.  

“We were finally able to get people in the same room to provide concrete answers. I wish I had done that sooner,” McGehee said. 

Nine months after the tornadoes devastated western Kentucky, debris removal, demolition and rebuilding is ongoing. In Mayfield, pulverized by the deadly storm, all county and city government facilities were destroyed. Mayor Kathy O’Nan’s office is now in an old fitness center building. 

“Still, we never missed a day of service to our citizens,” O’Nan said. 

As overwhelming as the disaster was to their communities, Mayor O’Nan, Judge McGehee and Judge Whitfield each recounted inspiring moments where they saw people lifting up each other. O’Nan shared a picture of two church congregations coming together for a Christmas Eve service outside their destroyed church buildings. 

“I hope none of you is ever asked to speak about what you’d do if your town is wiped out by winds or water. But I promise you, because you are a Kentucky town with good leaders, this [unity] is what will come of it,” O’Nan said. “I’ve never seen humanity come to the aid of other people like this.” 

Judge Whitfield’s tips - Do you have a plan? 

  • Talk to your emergency management team and other elected officials. 
  • Check your plan. If you don’t have one, make one. 
  • Work your plan. 
  • Participate in tabletop exercises. 
  • Know your plan, practice your plan, adjust your plan. 
  • Have phone numbers available for all organizations and people you may call on



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