After the December Tornadoes, Witnessing the Ongoing Devastation

Jamie Brown

Photographer and Greyshirt Jamie Brown documents, in words and pictures, a week he spent in southwest Kentucky.

Six Hurricanes, three tornadoes, two wildfires, two floods, one earthquake, and countless localized events: That’s my resume of disaster relief operations since the summer of 2015. All of that, and it was the scope and scale of damage I witnessed between Mayfield and Gilbertsville, KY, in December that left me speechless: A 30-mile stretch of pure devastation. And that is less than a quarter of the nearly 166-mile path this EF-4 tornado cut.

Kentucky, after the December 2021 tornadoes. Photo by Jamie Brown.

On Dec 10-11, 34 tornadoes raced across eight states—18 touched down in Kentucky alone—causing an estimated ​​$18 billion in total damage and economic loss. Within days, Team Rubicon was on the ground responding. I joined the operation over New Year’s week. 

Finding oneself in these environments frequently creates a familiarity that can become all too normalized. That is, until you step into something beyond what you’ve previously experienced. It’s a wake-up call to mother nature’s wrath. The word “obliterated” is overused, and when you’ve witnessed something that can only be described with that word, it seems too small. Walking through downtown Mayfield, the community of Cambridge Shores located on Kentucky Lake, and towns like Benton made the word seem small. Very small. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to debris fields—a mix of homes, belongings, cars, boats, trees, and root balls strewn across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

The First United Methodist Church in downtown Mayfield, KY. Photo by Jamie Brown.

Of course, what is also found in scenes like this are the people. Both those of the communities and those there to help. As heartbreaking as it is to see the aftermath of an event like this, it is heartwarming to see the outpouring of help, and then heartbreaking again to realize that it will be years before these communities are whole again. Possibly decades. The emotional rollercoaster is exhausting.

Tornadoes ripped off roofs and leveled homes along Kentucky Lake in Gilbertsville in December. Photo by Jamie Brown.

I’m fortunate in that I am able to see the best of humanity in the worst of times and capture some of those moments. But being a photographer during disasters and humanitarian crises comes with a sense of guilt, and even shame sometimes, feeling as though you are intruding on people’s worst moments. Bringing these images to the rest of the world sometimes feels almost dirty. But then someone, somewhere, reminds you that the world needs to see these things in order to continue the recovery efforts. It’s usually a community member who brings me back to that reality.

Team Rubicon volunteers clear tornado debris in Kentucky. Photo by Jamie Brown.

This is a collection of photos taken in the tornado-struck areas of Kentucky over New Year’s week. I only hope they can bring a renewed awareness and sense of urgency to the needs of these communities. Even now, the recovery is ongoing. For some people, it will take years to return home; for others, it may be never.

Boarding up against the elements in Gilbertsville’s Cambridge Shores neighborhood, after the December tornadoes. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Kentucky residents express their appreciation for recovery crews after the December tornadoes. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Tornado damage near Kentucky Lake. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Aftermath of the December tornadoes in Gilbertsville, KY. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Clearing debris near Kentucky Lake. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Cleanup begins after the December tornadoes in Kentucky. Photo by Jamie Brown.
Waiting in Mayfield, KY, after the December tornadoes. Photo by Jamie Brown.
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