2022 Southerners of the Year: Citizens of Mayfield, Kentucky

After a tornado devastated this small Kentucky town, the strength of the community helped pick up the pieces to bring it back to life.

First Christian Church of Mayfield after 2021 Tornado
First Christian Church of Mayfield after the December 10th, 2021 EF4 tornado. Photo: Andrew Hyslop

On the evening of December 10, 2021, an EF4 tornado with wind speeds up to 190 miles per hour ripped through Mayfield, Kentucky, leaving dozens of its 10,000 citizens dead and forever changing the footprint of this small town.

Graves County Courthouse, built in 1888, was not only the center of community activities for many decades but was also the architectural gem of Mayfield with its redbrick facade and octagonal clock tower. Now the tower is gone, and the future of the city's infrastructure is in question. The Mayfield American Legion Post 26 building is just a shell of the place that was once a vibrant hub of social gatherings, from sock hops to movie screenings. The Hall Hotel has been a part of the landscape at 7th Street and Broadway since 1929, and while there is still hope that it can recover, the storm damage here was significant.

Citizens of Mayfield mourn the loss of the tangible elements of their town's history and also the personal artifacts—the moments marked in family photo albums and lovers' initials etched in trees. There's a collective grief over the churches, where couples were married and babies were baptized, and the court square, where elderly gentlemen once gathered for card games and teenagers went on their first dates.

For weeks following the storm, farm fields were littered with glistening pieces of mangled metal as far as you could see. A mural that welcomes visitors to Mayfield is still intact at the mouth of the historic downtown, but now all that's visible behind it are mountains of splintered wood and heaps of bricks.

The tornado struck just two weeks before Christmas. As masses of people poured in to help, the juxtaposition of tumbled-down businesses and homes decorated with festive wreaths and colored lights was striking. Truckloads of Christmas trees were being unloaded in the very same parking lot where insurance companies were taking the claims of families whose homes were lost. There was a fierce determination that the blessings would overpower the grief.

Sandra Delk of Mayfield, KY
Mayfield has been Sandra Delk’s lifelong home. She is driven to help her neighbors recover, no matter how long it takes. Andrew Hyslop

Sandra Delk - The Community Organizer

That Friday night, as news about the weather flashed on her TV screen, Sandra Delk knew the drill. She wasn't particularly concerned as there had been another storm less than a week earlier that hadn't caused much of a ruckus. She assumed this one would be the same and fell asleep on the couch.

On Saturday morning, Delk, who lives just outside Mayfield, woke up safe. But she soon learned the news of the mile-wide EF4 tornado that had destroyed so much of the only place she has ever called home. Delk got into her car and headed toward the fairgrounds, where she has worked for 24 years. Once she arrived and saw that it had been mostly spared serious damage, she drove around to survey other areas. Just a mile or so away, Delk found entire neighborhoods wiped out. She tried to make it to the center of town but quickly realized she couldn't, so she went back to the fairgrounds and got to work.

With a siren call for help issued in a Facebook post, Delk was soon leading an army of volunteers to collect donations of essential goods and organizing a system to distribute them. After a few days, several warehouse-size spaces were filled with everything from baby formula to winter coats. There was no time for a formal title for the person at the helm of this operation. "I'm the woman in the yellow jacket," Delk says. "I wore it from the first day because it's got pockets—lots of them—and I love pockets. That was good so people could say, 'Find Sandy in the yellow jacket.' "

For the first few days of this Herculean effort, Delk and her 13-year-old niece spent nights in her car to remain on-site. She wanted to keep watch over the goods they had collected and to be on hand should someone need something in an off-hour.

Eventually, with a better security system in place, Delk returned to sleeping in her own bed—but just barely. Every day from early morning until suppertime, she kept things moving in the donation center she created. If she wasn't helping folks through the lines to gather essentials, she was behind the scenes conducting a symphony of volunteers or putting out social media calls for reinforcements. Delk has been in awe of the kindness displayed by others. She recalls a family who came in because they needed assistance but wanted to do their part first. "And they did," she says. "They walked in, signed up, got their yellow vests, and started helping."

From the beginning, Delk knew that her neighbors would require assistance for longer than a few weeks and that their needs would change over time. Her motivation was simple. "I was born and raised here," she explains. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."

The scenes she saw when she first made it into downtown are images that will haunt her. "I was looking at this, and it was just like somebody had punched me in the chest because some of these things are gone forever," Delk says. She remembers that her grandfather would play cards and chew tobacco sitting on a ledge outside the courthouse and that she met her husband on the court square when she was 16. She got her first job at Princess Theaters making 95 cents an hour. All of those markers of her personal history have been destroyed. Yet she's hopeful. "Those are memories that I have, and these spots are just gone," she says. "But the town will be rebuilt, and we're going to have to make new memories. That's what we do."

Jennifer Rukavina-Bidwell and Jeff Bidwell - The Small-Business Owners

Jeff Bidwell is a sports director for a local news station in nearby Paducah. He was at work that night. "I had the TV on with the sound off, but I could tell by the colors on the screen that it wasn't good," he remembers. Jeff's wife, Jennifer Rukavina-Bidwell, the former chief meteorologist from the same television station, was home when the tornado approached Mayfield. These days, Jennifer works freelance, so that night her focus turned toward the couple's latest collaboration, their floral business. The Bidwells own three shops now in Western Kentucky, and the very first one they purchased came with the bonus of a rich history: Jeannette's Mayfield Flower Company served people here for 89 years.

Jennifer monitored the radar with a keen eye, keeping in mind that the next day a client was expecting a casket spray that store manager Dee Gordy had recently finished for their loved one's funeral. As soon as she knew it was safe, Jennifer took off toward her shop. "I watched until it was through. Then I don't know what made me, but I just got in the car and drove," she says. As she tore down U.S. 45 from Paducah to Mayfield, Jennifer was thinking about that one family depending on her the next day. Even amid the trauma still unfolding all around, her mind was focused on how she could help.

"I had to park blocks from the store and walk," Jennifer says. "I got about a block and a half away, but two churches had fallen into the street and I couldn't get any farther." She realized she wasn't going to make it to the shop, but she found two young women who needed help. They were barefoot, muddy, and bloody. "I just put them in my van, took them to the hospital, and went home," Jennifer recalls. "I didn't want to get in the way."

The damage to their Mayfield shop was catastrophic, and the building has been declared a total loss. Despite the sea of broken glass on the floor and pillows of pink ceiling insulation strewn throughout, the casket spray was still in the center of the workroom, unblemished.

While the Bidwells couldn't get that specific arrangement where it was needed the next day, they haven't stopped serving their community for a moment. Utilizing their shop in Paducah, they worked nonstop to service the funerals of those whose lives were lost and to deliver bouquets to those recovering in the hospital. But they still wanted to do more. As parents, Jennifer and Jeff were particularly struck when they drove through town and saw swing sets, baby strollers, and toys "just strewn everywhere," as Jeff describes the scene. They launched a fundraising effort to give every child in Mayfield and the communities of Cayce and Dawson Springs a Demdaco Giving Bear. According to Jennifer, it's a "good hugging bear," and each one comes with a special message explaining that it has an ear to listen.

Jennifer and Jeff do not know what the future will hold for their business in Mayfield, but they want to preserve the legacy of Jeannette's in some way. Just like Delk, the Bidwells are confident that there is a future for this resilient Kentucky town. "People here look to their faith to power them through," says Jennifer. "I think that's the soul of the community, their beliefs and being able to lean on each other and God to guide them through what's next."

Dr. Milton West, senior minister of First Christian Church of Mayfield, KY
Dr. Milton West, senior minister of First Christian Church of Mayfield, stands in the rubble of the former sanctuary. Andrew Hyslop

Dr. Milton West - The Faith Leader

Dr. Milton West and his wife, Paula, heeded the warnings the meteorologists had issued that Friday night and were sheltering in place at home. Shortly after the storm moved on from Mayfield, he received a call from a friend at the church across the street from First Christian Church of Mayfield, where West serves as senior minister.

"He called me in tears at about 9:30 p.m. saying our churches were just blown away," West recalls. Another member of the church leadership phoned as well and confirmed the worst-case scenario. He told West, "There's rubble everywhere." The original building, erected in 1912, was a total loss.

The Kentucky native waited until daylight to make his way through the maze of closed streets and fallen power lines and branches sprawled across passageways to the church. "We finally got there, and the first thing we saw was that the dome of our church was completely gone," he says. "The sanctuary was exposed, and what was left of the roof had collapsed onto the floor." West had returned to Mayfield a few years earlierto serve at First Christian Church in the place where at least five generations of his family had grown up. "This is my hometown," he says. "My family goes deep in Graves County, in Mayfield. It was not easy to see the destruction of the building and the touchstones of our lives." West knew that his entire community had just lost the place where family members attended Sunday school, got married, baptized their children, or gathered to hear sermons. But then, as he entered the skeleton of the space he once knew, something happened.

"When I walked in the sanctuary, where the sky opened up, I saw that everything had been damaged except for two pieces: our Communion table (the front has a marvelous carving of da Vinci's Last Supper) and a gold cross," West recalls. "Everything else was disheveled, but those two items were unscathed. When I saw that, I told myself, 'I think we will be okay. We can make this work.' "

Just two days after the tornado destroyed their church, West led his congregation in a "parking lot worship service in the rubble." They salvaged as many shards of stained glass as they could, and a member is going to turn the scraps into beautiful crosses and Christmas ornaments. He also invited the congregation to an Ebenezer service where they each took a small piece of the debris, their own Ebenezer, as a visible commemoration of where they once worshipped. When they're able to rebuild, he'll ask them to each return their stone and place it on a table to be sealed in glass. "That is our reminder of the faith that sustains us," he says.

Beyond the initial shock and grief, West has been focused on the long-term needs of his church family. He hopes to be able to create a mental health facility that, while faith based, would be open to all who need it.

"For me, the challenge was responding to people who wanted guidance and direction," he says. "What do we do with what's happened? The theology of my faith teaches that God is never the author of anything evil or bad in our lives and this is not God's punishment on His people or our community. I see it as a call to be better, to improve, to live up to your history—and to exceed it. We can do this. We're going to thrive. This will make us better."

How To Help Mayfield

The Western Kentucky Chapter of the AmericanRed Cross

The Lee Initiative

Mayfield Community Foundation TornadoRelief Fund

Mercy Chefs

Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund

Team Rubicon

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