Disaster Responders Begin Taking on December Tornadoes

Julie H. Case

Hours after twisters took down hundreds of homes across the Midwest, veteran volunteers put boots on the ground and saws to work in Kentucky.

The houses are matchsticks across the landscape and even Larry Montoya is in awe. A U.S. Army veteran and long-time disaster relief volunteer, Montoya has deployed to dozens of disaster zones. But he’s never seen anything like Benton, Kentucky. 

“You’ll drive through a neighborhood: pristine. You’ll travel another minute and a half, two minutes, and then it’s just a warzone,” says Montoya, a Team Rubicon volunteer who arrived in Kentucky on Saturday. “There will be houses just on foundations, or others with roofs ripped clear rip off. You drive a few more minutes and you go back to a clean area again.”

Dawson Springs, KY, after the December 10 tornadoes.

On December 10-11, an estimated 50 tornadoes were reported across eight Midwest states, killing at least 88 people—at least 74 of them in Kentucky—and leaving tens of thousands without power. 

That the destruction was so random—leaving some homes standing while the neighboring home is gone—is common for tornadoes. Yet it doesn’t make their wrath or path any easier. 

“It’s got to hurt—almost like survivor’s guilt—because you’ll have on one block where 80% of the houses are destroyed, and then you’ll have these three or four houses that are missing a couple of shingles. Then, you’re looking at your neighbors and their houses are shredded; they’re just scattered for miles and miles,” says Montoya. 

Montoya is one of the roughly 40 Team Rubicon volunteers—Greyshirts—who have been on the ground in Kentucky helping homeowners affected by the tornadoes. 

Team Rubicon volunteers respond to the December tornadoes in Kentucky.

Over the past several days they’ve been removing debris scattered around, and top of, homes. A team of sawyers and heavy equipment operators has also been clearing roadways for emergency vehicles and to help restore access to homes in Dawson Springs, KY.

Getting so many boots on the ground so quickly was a result of a bit of prior planning by Team Rubicon: When the disaster relief organization got wind of possible weather events last week, they had already contacted some of the organization’s top volunteers and had them standing by should disaster strike.

On Saturday, just hours after the tornadoes, a handful of sawyers local to the area hit the ground and began taking down trees and debris scattered across roadways. Greyshirt Montoya and a couple of others arrived in Atlanta Saturday night and began making their way to the tornado zone. Meanwhile, Team Rubicon was busy booking flights and deploying other Greyshirts. Less than 48 hours of the first tornado more than three dozen volunteers—sawyers and heavy equipment operators included—were clearing roads, roofs, and driveways in Kentucky.

The Greyshirt army isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, either. Regardless of the holidays, Team Rubicon expects to have dozens of volunteers deployed to Mayfield, Dawson Springs—and possibly also to Bowling Green, KY, and Wilson and Henry counties in Tennessee—through at least January 5.

Read More Stories