Holiday horror: AP photographer covers hometown twister

by AryanArtnews
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Brin Anderson

December 23, 2021 GMT

Bowling Green, Kentucky (AP) — After a myriad of vacations, I returned home to western Kentucky. No matter where I come from, it’s always the same. It’s a long highway that leads to places I’ve known since I was little.

But this year is not the case. Everything is different after the tornado tears through a hometown full of happy memories of a gathering of friends and family. Twister was part of a swarm of extraordinary storms in mid-December that leveled the entire South and Midwest community, killing 90 people in five states, including 16 in Bowling Green.

Instead of exuding the excitement of my usual holiday, my aunt and cousin talk about the horror I felt when I saw the approach of a giant black cloud with a tornado siren ringing.

Full coverage: photography

Devastation is everywhere. The sanctuary of the church where worshipers would have gathered for Christmas Eve worship is divided. A pile of shattered pine and shattered timber hides the holiday decoration, but for some reason, a decorated Christmas tree still stands inside the roofless brick house.

About 130 miles (209 km) away, a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary in the devastated Mayfield clasped her hands with peaceful joy and stood on another garden littered with broken plywood. I am. An empty hole in the nearby wall indicates where the theater movie screen was.

When I was little, my mother and I lived in a mobile home a few miles from the center of Bowling Green. One year, perhaps when I was six, she desperately packed me into the car and started driving after the tornado sirens began to scream.

I remember she pushed me behind the driver’s seat after we left the road. When I held my hand over my head, I felt the car sway and I heard the wind carry away the debris. Mom was scared, and it wasn’t like her.

We survived that day. But now, when I see the damage done to Kentucky by another tornado match, those memories overwhelm me. I’m a professional — I’ve covered many other tornadoes working as photographers on the Associated Press. But I still can’t believe it happened here. At home.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect during the five-hour drive from Atlanta, where I currently live with my family, to Bowling Green. Things looked normal, but they weren’t.

There are places where the lights are on, but it is pitch black in places where neither the power crew nor the generator can reach. Rain covers the windshield, but every time you steadily sweep the wipers, you’ll find that the city is broken and full of debris.

The smell after the tornado is overwhelming. The sap from a broken tree and the natural gas that blows into the air from a broken line are mixed with a strange and characteristic scent. There is no difference this time as well.

It’s easier to walk than driving through the most devastated areas, but when you go down the bypass, your feet get wet mud near the business you remember from childhood to Western Kentucky University student days. It will sink.

Firehouse Pizza has been destroyed and a sign is hanging just above the ground. The restaurant Judy’s Castle, which we used to eat a lot, doesn’t have at least one wall and the next Cardinal Motel is gone. All that remains is a large statue of a red bird. Oddly enough, the Great American Waffle Shop, not far away, is okay and open, although everyone calls it “Gad.”

The rest of the wind-shattered plastic sign conveys a message to the bowling green community: “BG Strong.” The pedestrian bridge, which is popular for family photos and date nights, creates fog between the banks of the barren river. One is littered with damaged houses and the other is relatively untouched. The next time I go home, I hope both sides are okay.

My family is safe and grateful. While my relatives are wrapping gifts for their children, others nearby are wrapping their roofs in plastic and tarpaulins to prevent damage from the next storm that hits the town.

You can record what happened, but you can’t explain it. But my young cousin believes she can.

“Sure, we were protected by God,” she said.

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