TAYLOR COUNTY, Ky. (WDRB) – Eleven months after deadly tornadoes ripped through Kentucky, families in Taylor County are working to rebuild.
Driving up Sanders Road in Saloma, a small town just north of Campbellsville, the land seems night and day compared to when disaster first struck.
The fields strewn with the debris of a dozen houses hard hit by the storms are now covered with wheat. Along the road, houses torn from their foundations are rebuilt.
The Wooldridge family has made the area their home all their lives. And they say a tornado wasn’t going to change that.
WDRB News first encountered Mitchell in the early hours of Dec. 11, 2021. It was still dark and only about an hour after a tornado destroyed his home.
WDRB’s Grace Hayba and photojournalist Stuart Hammer found Mitchell, her family and more than a dozen of their neighbors gathered around a fireplace. They were passing towels around to dry off as the rain continued to fall and the winds howled outside.
Wooldridge’s neighbor’s house was the only one on the street not hit.
DESTRUCTION IN TAYLOR KY COUNTY | These are just some of the damage we are seeing. Several razed houses and debris everywhere. Neighbors tell me if they’re just grateful to be alive. pic.twitter.com/MVVMyhrZh8
— Grace Hayba (@GraceHayba) December 11, 2021
“The Code Red alert woke us up,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t raining or anything, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s okay. And then you hear the strong winds.”
At the time, Mitchell said, “The Lord has taken care of us,” describing how he and his family survived through God’s grace. Mitchell said he took refuge in the basement with his family and rushed downstairs to meet them seconds before the winds blew their house away.
The family was trapped in the basement after a wall collapsed above Mitchell.
“We just tried to hide under whatever we could to stay dry, waiting for someone to come,” he said. “Thank God we know a lot of people in this town.”
Eventually, their neighbors came to the rescue and got the family to safety. The group then helped rescue other people trapped in the basements of nearby homes.
The Wooldridges lost almost all of their personal belongings in the storm. One of their dogs and some of their cattle were also killed.
Although they were starting from scratch, Mitchell said the family started building a new home on the same lot fairly quickly.
“We went from not having a house to about two weeks later sitting down with plans to see when we were going to start the next one. On the first of January we were digging a basement,” he said. declared.
The family said they could not have rebuilt without tremendous love and support from the community.
“I can’t say enough about the people who have proven themselves to be the hands and feet of Christ,” Mitchell’s wife Courtney said. “It’s just phenomenal to see people love us and you just know that God is still moving and still working. We said from the start that Campbellsville showed what you do for people in crisis.”
As construction of the walls began, Mitchell said he posted a message on Facebook asking for help, and more than 50 people showed up. He said they were able to erect almost all the walls of the house in a single day.
When designing how things look, Courtney said she wanted the space to “feel like home” while being better suited to the needs of their growing family.
When the tornadoes hit, Mitchell and Courtney were in the process of adopting their third child. The couple put things at home for a while but were able to go ahead with adopting a three-year-old boy after finding temporary accommodation through family friends.
Rowan, affectionately known as “Row”, turned four a few weeks after joining his new family.
“It was pretty neat to have a four-year-old again,” Courtney said. “It’s different because we had both girls as newborns and so we jumped into the world of three-year-old boys. And oh my God, it’s different!
The couple also adopted their eldest daughter Emery, 11, shortly after she was born. Courtney then gave birth to their second child, Annslee, 10, less than a year later.
“We used to have a picture of the two of us at prom and we knew then, as teenagers, that was what God wanted us to do,” Courtney said as she reflected on their decision to adopt.
Mitchell said that despite the challenges of navigating new construction and starting over, Rowan has acclimated almost seamlessly to their family.
“I would say in two weeks it was honestly like he was with us forever. It was amazing how the girls flew up and played with him and it was just normal,” said said the father.
“It’s amazing the provision God has made for this,” Courtney added.
In the new house, each child will have their own bedroom. Rowan will be steps away from mom and dad. Her windows overlook the back patio, which her father says is her “favorite part of the house.”
The girls chose rooms downstairs. Parents say being in the basement makes the girls feel safer after enduring such a traumatic night nearly a year ago.
The girls’ rooms are also just yards from the family’s new tornado safe.
“We just knew we wanted one. We put ours in the basement behind the porch,” Mitchell said. “They poured all the walls in one go, so everything is poured continuously.”
Mitchell said they also drilled rebar into the walls and laid them on top of the room for added protection. When building the space, he said he told everyone he wanted it to be strong enough that you could park a truck on it.
Courtney said some might consider the design “over the top”, but said the family “just needed a little peace”.
When their home was destroyed last year, the family said their belongings were found as far away as Versailles and Mason County.
“Our wedding album was a professionally matted book with three to four photos per page. It was a photo that was ripped out of my brother and I on my wedding day and honestly it looked like you had it dropped out of your pocket. It wasn’t ripped, it wasn’t watery, it was picture perfect,” Mitchell said. “It’s crazy to me that he ripped it out of that book, drove it 90 miles down the road and ended up in someone’s backyard.”
With the couple planning to move into their new home soon, one of the hardest things is knowing that things of sentimental value have been lost forever.
“We didn’t have a lot of what people would call ‘cool’ stuff. But everything we had was tied to a memory,” Mitchell said.
Courtney recalled one time when she found herself looking for a clock that had belonged to Mitchell’s grandfather a few days earlier. In every house she and her husband had lived in since their marriage, she had always hung right next to the door.
“Stuff like that, I don’t know, will we ever stop looking for Papaw’s clock?” I doubt it,” Courtney said. “We had things that had memories, but even when all your material possessions are gone, we still have the memories.”
One thing the family is particularly looking to have again is a kitchen table.
“We try to sit at the kitchen table and have supper in the evening and try to talk about everyone’s day and stay in touch. So the table was important,” Mitchell said.
“And it will be again,” Courtney added.
The family know inner healing will take time, but say God will help them through it all.
“We went to bed in the rental house and thought, ‘Do you already think you’re going to wake up from this dream? ‘” Mitchell said. “And we’re gonna wake up one day and it’s okay, it’s just gonna be a different place.”
The family plans to move into their new home in time for Thanksgiving.
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