Cambridge Shores tornado – The Washington Post

MARSHALL COUNTY, Ky. — Zane Leith spotted his bathtub 150 feet from what used to be his house, nestled on a bed of pink fiberglass insulation and a jumble of clothes on hangars somehow still hooked to the rod.
He, his wife and their two kids — ages 8 and 3 — had huddled in the white rectangular tub as last Friday’s violent EF4 tornado tore through western Kentucky, leveling everything in its path, including his subdivision, the usually tranquil Cambridge Shores.
“All the way to here,” Leith, 36, said Wednesday, pointing to where the bathtub was flung by estimated 190 mph wind speeds, sending him and his family into the air. “That’s where we got up and walked out of this wreckage in our bare feet.”
How Friday night’s rare and deadly December tornado outbreak unfolded
Leith and other residents in small, rural Kentucky towns devastated by the tornadoes now face the prospect of rebuilding their homes amid overlapping challenges of affordable housing, supply chain crunches and the region’s increasingly unpredictable extreme weather patterns.
Cambridge Shores residents worry communities like theirs could fall further behind. Even before the storm, there were glaring gaps in Marshall County’s infrastructure. As an unincorporated area, the subdivision relies on the county’s 38-person volunteer fire department. Firefighters and other first responders were still struggling with basic cellphone access days after the tornado struck. Emergency managers, meanwhile, lacked access to basic mapping tools.
Unlike like bigger cities like Mayfield, which President Biden toured Wednesday, Cambridge Shores hasn’t made many headlines, despite the widespread destruction. Displaced neighbors have set up residence at a nearby campsite that could be home for months.
The ordeal has put the plight of rural communities after severe storms — which climate change could make even more disastrous — back into sharp relief.
“Our little town will never be the same out here,” said Misty Grebner, who co-owns the Moors Marina and Resort, where Cambridge Shores families are now living in cabins. “People have said ‘I’m so glad I live here, our neighbors are taking care of us.’ ”
Storms pummeled Kentucky on Dec. 10 in what Gov. Andy Beshear (D) called the worst tornado event in the state’s history. The 250-mile path of destruction caused death and destruction in five states, with Kentucky the hardest-hit. Thousands were left without power or shelter and at least 77 people were killed statewide, where victims ranged from infants to the elderly.
In Cambridge Shores, the tornado reduced to rubble what was previously a picturesque neighborhood of leafy streets and gently rolling hills overlooking the banks of Lake Kentucky. Manufactured homes and mid-century cottages were interspersed with newer, statelier lake houses closer to the waterfront; both Porsches and pickup trucks parked in the driveways.
Local residents estimate more than a third of homeowners, usually retirees, lived in the area part-time, while the core of the community were lifelong residents. Two were killed in the tornado: 83-year-old Judith Davis and 78-year-old Neila Gaither, a neighbor Leith had known since boyhood who later doted on his own young children with coloring books and snacks.
She just loved and thought they were the sweetest, best babies in the world,” Leith said.
Rebuilding comes at a time when construction costs have skyrocketed: Building a single-family home jumped 17 percent over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s the biggest short-term jump that Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America has seen in his 20-year career. Because thousands of structures were wiped out at once, costs might get pushed up even higher than that in the area where the tornadoes hit.
“You might get short-term spikes in a place where you have extreme demand, so it’s possible it might go up even more in Kentucky,” Simonson said.
The state was already short 78,000 affordable homes for low-income renters before the storm, according to Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky.
“In western Kentucky and in our rural communities, we have pretty low incomes compared to the national level, or even the state medium income,” Bush said. “Those people don’t have as many resources as far as mortgage deferrals or homeowners insurance.”
Marshall County’s 13,121 households are scattered throughout a mix of rural farmland and lakeside resort areas; half-million-dollar lake houses owned by out-of-town retirees sit a stone’s throw from the modest homes and trailers of lifelong residents who skew more working-class.
Renters, poor residents and Black Kentuckians are being left behind in the tornado disaster response with lower rates of relocation to state parks and other shelters, Bush said. But even small communities and neighborhoods, like Cambridge Shores, that are overwhelmingly White and have high rates of homeownership could face trouble.
“There is a concern that when we respond to disaster, we respond to low-hanging fruit,” Bush said. “These small communities, if they’re hard to get to, if there’s not much infrastructure there, it’s going to be hard for emergency management to access.”
Those shortcomings have been readily apparent in the aftermath of the tornadoes. Aside from a stretched fire department, emergency managers also initially had a limited picture of key geographic elements in the county. Much of the area had not been mapped in the most common open-source databases used by emergency responders, according to Adam Marlatt, operations director for Help.NGO, a nonprofit that uses technology to speed disaster response efforts.
“Outside of what city planning and what has been used for zoning and otherwise, there’s a lot of this real, detailed stuff [on the map] that is missing,” he said.
Help.NGO workers set up in the East Marshall Fire Protection District were able to use drones and remote mapping tools to provide a more robust picture for emergency responders so they could tell where a structure used to be, what pathways were blocked to vehicles and even how much debris was in an area.
Researchers ponder why Friday’s tornadoes led to so many deaths, despite ample warning Drone video shows mass destruction from tornado in Mayfield
The recovery in Cambridge Shores has been an all-hands-on-deck endeavor.
For days, more than a dozen electrical crews had been working to repair downed power lines, with major entry points to Cambridge Shores and nearby Sherwood Shores blocked off by deputies and state officials to create space for emergency workers and head off the looters and price gougers who had already emerged.
Neighbors, including those whose homes were damaged or destroyed, poured into the fire station to sign up as volunteers to clean, clear debris or ferry items in their trucks. But the crush of unofficial assistance overwhelmed the sheriff’s department. By midday Wednesday, deputies abruptly shut down entrances to anyone who wasn’t a resident or a designated emergency responder.
Inside the station, a woman blasted her frustration at volunteers at the check-in table after waiting hours for a contractor only to have him blocked from entering her neighborhood to help patch up her home.
“There’s a storm coming and I got a big open space in my roof,” she said. A volunteer soon led her away to find tarps she could take back for her contractor once the entrances reopened. The woman re-emerged with tarps in hand moments later and apologized.
“I’m sorry for all that,” she told them. “Y’all didn’t deserve that.” As she walked out the door, a volunteer wrapped her into a hug as she broke into sobs.
Zane Leith’s home was still intact at 9:30 p.m. the night of the tornado. He had lived in the house almost his entire life, first as a child and now with his own family, so a tornado plan was well in place: Get to the downstairs bathtub, cover the wife and kids, and pull a mattress over his back.
“Baby, that’s close to us,” he told his wife, looking at the Doppler radar image on his phone that showed the storm about to hit Mayfield, just 30 miles away. No sooner had he herded the kids into the bathtub, that the lights went out and the pressure in the house changed. Leith jumped into the tub and pulled the mattress over his family.
“Within one second, maybe two seconds, our whole world just got swept away,” he said.
The bathtub was sucked out from under the family, which was sent “flying through the air for about 50 yards,” before landing facedown as the tornado ripped overhead.
He found his family members all within arm’s length, alive, but not unscathed: His wife, Leah, later required 17 staples in her head and had broken her foot in three places; 8-year-old Sydney had an injured hand and a collapsed lung, while 3-year-old Ezra escaped with scrapes and bruises.
Leith considers his family among the fortunate ones. They’ll be home from the hospital by Christmas, and will stay for the next several months in a tidy blue two-bedroom cottage at the Moors campsite.
Misty Grebner, one of the Moors co-owners, said the resort is opening its cabins, cottages and lodge to displaced families like Leith’s, free of charge.
“Who knows how long it’s going to take FEMA to get their money? So we’re not going to not put them somewhere. You got to have a place to live,” she said.
Grebner had the residence scrubbed clean and stocked with snacks, juice, applesauce and an Elf on the Shelf for Sydney. Volunteers were slated to decorate the cottage, complete with a Christmas tree and presents for the family.
The resort, now in its offseason, will house as many people as it can fit. Since Sunday, the resort’s small commercial kitchen has served more than 1,500 meals to anyone who walked through the doors. Staff members have returned to work during the normally quiet winter months, bolstered by the dozens of volunteers collecting food, clothing and toiletries to pile into the lodge. Grebner said she’s resisted drawing a line on the resort’s stretched capacity.
“Where do you stop it? Who doesn’t deserve a meal?” she said. “We were blessed not to receive any damage. My sister-in-law questioned, ‘Why were we spared?’ And I just told her, ‘It’s because we’re the providers, so we’re just providing what we can.’ ”
Leith has been telling those who still have homes or cars not to feel survivor’s guilt. If it weren’t for people who came through the tornado intact, people like him who lost everything wouldn’t have anyone to lean on.
“We need the people that still stand on two firm legs in order to help the rest of us up,” he said.
As the sun began to set on the pile of rubble that was Leith’s home, Grebner and her husband Josh took one more pass around the debris with Leith before he set out for the two-hour drive to Nashville where his daughter remained hospitalized. Leith found his daughter’s yellow blanket that rescue crews had set aside. He held a few toys in his hand, but said most everything else was lost.
Josh Grebner encouraged Leith to save the bathtub that helped shield the family and volunteered to send someone to retrieve it and bring it back to the resort so it could have a second life as a planter.
“We’ll take it plant something in it,” Grebner said.
Standing in the middle of his neighborhood which would never be the same, Leith was unsure if he would rebuild or even return to the area. For now, his family will call the cottage with soft couches and large windows their home, a safe and dry place to stash the few possessions he picked up from the disaster site: Sydney’s yellow baby blanket, a laminated sheet of baseball cards and a Pound Puppy stuffed animal from Leith’s childhood. The one thing he was certain of is that he would not be sad.
“I am okay,” he said. “As soon as my family stood up and I saw they were alive, I haven’t had a bad thought in my head since then.”
Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.
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