Many in Kentucky expect long struggle to rebuild, heal after damage from tornadoes

Editor's note: For more on how to help people affected by the Kentucky tornado, click here.

It's been seven weeks since a series of ferocious tornadoes tore through Western Kentucky and surrounding areas, killing 90 people, and making hundreds more homeless. Kentucky’s governor, and President Joe Biden, have promised whatever is needed to rebuild. William Brangham recently returned to the town of Mayfield, and found a community struggling to get back on its feet.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been seven weeks it's a series of ferocious tornadoes tore through Western Kentucky and surrounding areas, killing 90 people and making hundreds more homeless.

    Kentucky's governor and President Biden have promised whatever is needed to rebuild.

    William Brangham recently returned to the town of Mayfield and found a community struggling to get back on its feet.

  • William Brangham:

    Nearly two months on, it's still jarring to see, block after block of utter destruction.

    Over 1,000 homes and businesses were hit by one of the most severe tornadoes this area had seen in decades. Survivors now live in hotels or state parks or with family far away. Huge hydraulic metal cutters pick through the wreckage, but they seem dwarfed by the scale of the work still to be done.

  • Jo Anna Schroerm, Constable, Graves County, Kentucky:

    It's kind of — and I hate to compare it to this, but it's like if you lose a member of your family, and you go to a funeral, and everybody shows up for the funeral, and then they leave the next day and you're sitting there in silence in your home and everyone's gone, but you're still suffering.

    That's what this town is doing.

    This is the fairgrounds.

  • William Brangham:

    Jo Anna Schroer is the local constable in Mayfield. And since the tornado hit, she's become something of a one-woman relief effort.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    Do you guys have any medical supplies back here?

  • Man:

    I don't think so.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    Plenty of gauze bandages, medical tape.

  • William Brangham:

    Hunting through mountains of donated goods, Schroer is trying to steer this generous tide…

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    That's adorable.

  • William Brangham:

    … towards the very specific needs of her community.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    And I found this little toy here.

    I'm Jo Anna.

  • Woman:

    Amanda. Nice to meet you.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    Amanda, I have stuff for you. Is your son here?

  • Woman:

    Yes, he is here.

  • Man:

    Doing a lot better than what I was doing in the hospital.

  • William Brangham:

    This young man in this bed broke his leg in multiple places doing volunteer cleanup. He can't work now, and his family is struggling.

    Schroer brought bags of medical supplies for his mom to use.

  • Woman:

    And when I got that phone call, it — I was really scared.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    The people that I work with every day, they're mentally hopeful, because the news keeps telling them to be hopeful. But the reality of it is, they're in despair.

    Face to face, one on one, they're scared. They're very scared. They're scared what tomorrow is going to bring.

  • William Brangham:

    FEMA says almost 15,000 Kentuckians have registered for help. It and other federal agencies have given out over $35 million in loans and grants in the state. A quarter of that went to housing assistance and repair.

    And a million cubic yards of debris — that's about two-thirds the volume of the Houston Astrodome — has already been removed. There's another three million still to go. The needs are everywhere.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    Right now, you let us help you.

  • William Brangham:

    Including another person Schroer is helping.

    Chance Pitts was injured by the tornado. He lost two cars, his job, and he's running out of money. Pitts worked at the candle factory in Mayfield that was completely flattened by the tornado. After the collapse, several employees claimed supervisors told them that, if they left work in advance of the storm, they could lose their jobs.

    A state investigation is under way, and a class-action lawsuit has been filed. Pitts isn't part of the suit. Company owners deny those accusations and say none of their supervisors told people they had to stay.

  • Chance Pitts, Former Candle Factory Employee:

    I was told by people there that they was not able to leave, so I did not ask to leave that day, because I was more worried about having a job to support my family.

  • William Brangham:

    Pitts says that, when the roof blew off, a large cinder block wall fell on him and several others, trapping them inside a pile of debris.

  • Chance Pitts:

    I'm sandwiched between the floor, other people underneath me, the walls and all the metal on top of me.

    Soon as it first happened, I prayed to God to let me live. And then after I got done, I was able to reach into my pocket and call my wife, and told her that I loved her, and I didn't know if I was going to make it home.

  • William Brangham:

    What did she say back to you?

  • Chance Pitts:

    To please not say that. And I told her that I didn't want to say it, but we're just getting crushed by the moment.

  • William Brangham:

    Pitts was trapped inside that building for five-and-a-half-hours. Among the eight people who died in the factory that night, one of them was right underneath Pitts.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    He has a strong sense of guilt. He feels that he should have been able to save her, as he was trying so hard to save everyone that was in that compartment with him.

  • William Brangham:

    But he helped hold up a wall to protect all those other people.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    That's correct. But you can save 20 and lose one, and you will worry more about that one than the other 20, because they're already out there with their families, and this woman is not.

  • Chance Pitts:

    I have dreams about it a lot. I will say that.

  • William Brangham:

    To this day?

  • Chance Pitts:

    To this day.

  • William Brangham:

    The wreckage of the candle factory has now been cleaned away. It seems like one of the fastest cleanup jobs in the area. We went to the site with Pitts and Schroer.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    It's overwhelming.

  • William Brangham:

    For Schroer, who hasn't been back since that first night, when she called for help online…

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    This is the candle factory. This is where the tornado went through. There is nothing left of it.

  • William Brangham:

    … coming back today, seeing the place scraped clean, was rough for her.

    For Chance Pitts, the company just announced the factory isn't rebuilding. He and most of the other employees are permanently laid off.

    Because he worked there just three months, he can't file for unemployment.

    So, what are you doing for money now?

  • Chance Pitts:

    Basically, at this point in time, I'm broke, living on a prayer, I guess.

  • William Brangham:

    And how much longer do you think you can go like that?

  • Chance Pitts:

    Not much longer. And I have to go find another job, even though I got injuries. So, I'm going to have to work through it. You know what I mean? Bills don't pay they self.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a dilemma that is facing this entire region.

    Teresa Rochetti-Cantrell, Former Mayor of Mayfield, Kentucky: When you look at all of the businesses that have been affected, some of these businesses have moved outside of the city limits. Will they come back? Will they rebuild in Mayfield? I don't know.

  • William Brangham:

    Teresa Rochetti-Cantrell was Mayfield's mayor for eight years, and now she runs a large charitable organization in town. She says new money will come in time, but, right now, Mayfield's desperate for funds.

  • Teresa Rochetti-Cantrell:

    I'm probably being aggressive when I say that we have lost half of our tax base. But when you look at all of these, for everywhere that there was a building, there was a value on that building. And now the value of that building is gone.

    And so it's going to be valued at just the vacant land. That's a huge deficit for a city tax base.

  • William Brangham:

    Chance Pitts' experience mirrors much of what's going on in this whole community, damaged, hurt, and struggling to get back on its feet.

    Constable Schroer says she and lots of others will be here for the long haul.

  • Jo Anna Schroer:

    Let's look at what we need to do tomorrow to make tomorrow better, because this is not a one-week repair here or a two-week or a six-month. This is years. This is years of commitment. And when the fanfare is over, the work is still here and has to be done.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Mayfield, Kentucky.

Listen to this Segment