Just two weeks before Christmas of 2021, a swarm of more than 66 tornadoes tore through eight midwestern and southern states. More than a quarter million people lost power, and whole communities were devastated, particularly in Kentucky, which alone saw 19 tornadoes touch down and more than 70 people killed.
Beginning in December, Team Rubicon began deploying Greyshirts to the impacted areas, and for the next three months, dozens of Greyshirts were on the ground every day, serving survivors in Bowling Green, Mayfield, and Dawson Springs.
“It was just…destroyed,” said Army veteran and Greyshirt Topher Hedrick, who spent more than two weeks serving in Kentucky. “Standing on that hill, looking in every direction, everything was flattened. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Greyshirt Melissa Banks had served on tornado operations before, as a medical technician in the Air National Guard, but was still unprepared for the scale of destruction. “In some cases, our team arrived at addresses where there was zero indication that a home had ever stood on the property.”
That tornado response wasn’t the first time Team Rubicon had responded to a major disaster in the Bluegrass State, and it wouldn’t be the last. A leap-day tornado launched the first response in 2012, followed by a tremendous flood in eastern Kentucky in 2015. All told, Greyshirts would return half a dozen times for floods, severe storms, and tornado operations prior to the December ’21 tornado response. They’d return again after a nearly unprecedented 1-in-1000-year flood ravaged eastern Kentucky in 2022, triggering landslides, trapping entire communities, and leaving more than 40 people dead. The damage was immense, and Team Rubicon initiated a national call for volunteers to help the thousands of Kentuckians impacted, drawing Greyshirts from all over the United States and even from Canada.
In 2023, Team Rubicon returned with a Kentucky Rebuild project in Dawson Springs—a small town with one road into and out of town, a single gas station, and where every home lost during the ’21 tornadoes was keenly felt by the tiny community.
That’s why a few days prior to Thanksgiving 2023, Hedrick found himself back in Kentucky. This time, though, he was there to celebrate the moment the Greyshirt Kentucky Rebuild crew handed Dawson Springs resident Joy Baxter, a single mom of a teenage boy who needs special care and the primary caretaker for her parents, the keys to her rebuilt house.
“There were smiles all around,” Hedrick said, standing outside Baxter’s new home. Greyshirt and Construction Project Manager for Team Rubicon in Kentucky, Angie Castillo, agreed.
“She didn’t think it was real at first,” said Castillo, “but her smile was. And her son was just ecstatic to see the bathtub.”
The Baxter family joins more than 720 other families in six states and Puerto Rico who have had their homes restored after hurricanes, ice storms, landslides, and tornadoes through Team Rubicon’s Rebuild program, which was launched in Houston in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey. To date, two homes have been completed in Kentucky, and two more are under construction.
“The Rebuild team is the last piece,” said Castillo, “for people who felt forgotten to continue their lives.”
Much of the Dawson Springs community turned out to support the Baxters that day, and when the next family was shown their new Team Rubicon home shortly thereafter, even more people were there to show appreciation for the rejuvenation of this little corner of their small community. Dawson Springs Mayor Jenny Sewell was there and personally thanked Castillo and the other Greyshirts. “This represents the best that humankind has to give,” said the mayor. As the welcome-home ceremony wrapped up, even the governor called in to express his gratitude. “Team Rubicon supported team Kentucky,” said Governor Andy Beshear, “and we’re really thankful for you guys.”