FRANKFORT, Ky. – Chris Bullock has a lot to be grateful for as she decorates her new home for Christmas, after spending much of the past year in a camper with her family.
One year ago Saturday, a massive tornado obliterated wide swaths of her Kentucky hometown of Dawson Springs, leaving her homeless after a terrifying night of death and destruction.
Things look much different now.
In August, Bullock and her family moved into their new home, built free of charge by the disaster relief group God’s Pit Crew. It sits on the same site where their home of 26 years was wiped out.
“God’s sent blessings to us,” Bullock said in a phone interview leading up to the anniversary. “Sometimes we feel there’s a little guilt, if you will. Why were we spared?”
The holiday season tragedy killed 81 people across Kentucky and turned buildings into mounds of rubble as damage reached into hundreds of millions of dollars. Elsewhere in the state, Mayfield took a direct hit from the swarm of December tornadoes, which left a wide trail of destruction. In Bowling Green, a tornado tore through a subdivision.
It was part of a massive tornado outbreak across the Midwest and the South.
In Dawson Springs and other Kentucky towns in the path of the storms, homes and businesses have been springing up steadily in recent months. Government assistance, private donations and claims payouts by insurers have poured into the stricken western Kentucky region.
“It’s more than encouraging,” said Jenny Beshear Sewell, the mayor-elect of Dawson Springs and a cousin of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. “In a storybook, it is like the turn to the next chapter. That’s how it feels. That’s what it looks like.”
On Saturday, the state's Democratic governor led commemorative events in western Kentucky recalling the horrifying opening chapters of the tragedy. The gatherings remembered those who died and paid tribute to the rescue workers who pulled people from the wreckage — as well as the volunteers who have pitched in for the massive rebuild.
At the ceremony in Mayfield, the governor recalled scenes of destruction he saw one year ago in the town as “more devastating than anything I’ve ever seen in my life.” Neighbors dug through rubble to pull people out, and first responders worked long hours while not knowing if their own homes were still standing, he said.
“What I often tell people when it seems like maybe we’ve lost our hope in humanity — if you get to that point, just watch what people are doing right after something as devastating as these tornadoes," Beshear said. "Watch how they’re trying to help. Watch how the things that we were arguing about a month before don’t matter at all. And how our goodness shines through.”
The work to rebuild includes providing economic opportunities, Beshear said, two days after announcing a project that will create 80 jobs in the Mayfield area.
“It’s not just enough to repair buildings," he continued. "We’ve got to restore hope. We’ve got to give people a reason to stay and rebuild, to continue to allow towns like this ... to not only survive but to thrive.”
Beshear's family has deep connections to Dawson Springs. The governor's father, former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, grew up in the tightknit western Kentucky community.
Also Saturday, about 200 people retraced the path the tornado took as it tore through Mayfield, the Courier Journal reported. Organizers hoped the memorial walk would serve as a thank-you to first responders and a tribute to victims, the Louisville paper said.
The devastation sparked an outpouring of love and help that started almost as soon as daylight revealed the scope of the damage.
A full year later, the help keeps coming.
Plenty of storm victims continue to struggle, including some of Bullock's neighbors who lost homes and loved ones. Others are not nearly as far along in rebuilding. Still, progress is steady, and Bullock said it “warms your heart” to see her neighborhood coming back together.
“For the most part, the same people are in the same spot where they belong, in our opinion,” she said. "We are where we belong.”
Bullock remembers in detail the harrowing chain of events a year ago.
She rushed to the basement with her husband Barry, 17-year-old son Stevie and miniature poodle Dewey moments before the storm hit.
“They say it was 33 seconds," she said. "It felt like 33 minutes.”
Bullock was trapped under a crumbled brick wall in the basement with her son and dog. Her husband pulled them from the rubble with minor injuries. Amid the chaos and destruction, it took relatives about 10 hours to find them.
They moved into a camper nearby for six months, waiting for their new house to go up and spending the rest of the time with relatives.
Bullock admitted Christmas brings a mix of feelings amid so much ongoing struggle — “Why are we getting to be in our house for Christmas?" while others aren't — but said she and her husband have always gone all out for the holidays. She said leaning in to do some of the things they enjoy feels a little like taking a stand.
So her husband went “overboard" stringing Christmas lights on their new home, she said, and she bought plenty of new decorations. But it will take time before the display is completely revived.
“I can’t make it look like that yet,” she said. "It’s going to have to wait another year.”