With nightmares and tears, a Kentucky town feels the long reach of a tornado’s trauma
By Rick Rojas
Isaiah Holt passes his days sequestered in a home that was not touched by the tornado. Still, he cannot escape the storm.
He sustained nerve damage while trapped in the rubble of the candle factory where he worked and fears it will be permanent. His skin is etched with cuts and chemical burns. A strong gust of wind or an exploding building in an action movie can unleash in him a rush of terror. Lately he has spent $400 on DoorDash deliveries, as the pain — physical but also psychological — makes it difficult to venture outside. His dining table is littered with bags from McDonald’s.
“I felt good today,” Holt, 32, said on a recent afternoon. He had made a few phone calls. He took a shower. He confessed that it was only the second one he had taken in 2022.
“That’s what ‘feeling good’ means, just be feeling normal,” he said. “What makes it hard is I have nothing to do right now. I’m single with no kids, and I have no job.” So, he sits and he stews.
The storm on Dec. 10 spawned tornadoes that scraped a trail of destruction that spanned 260 miles, cutting through farmland and small towns from Arkansas into Kentucky. Scores of people were killed, and many have been forced to rebuild their lives completely. But communities along that path are now confronting another form of devastation that is less tangible but just as staggering: the emotional and psychological toll that comes from enduring so much loss and suffering.
The long and unforgiving reach of the storm is evident in nights that are sleepless or disrupted by harrowing dreams, unexpected bursts of tears, flashes of anger, fuzzy memories, a diminished appetite — the multitude of ways that trauma can manifest itself after a disaster.
Now, more than a month after the storm, some — because of resources or simple luck — have been able to emerge from the shock of the storm. On the other side of a growing gulf, though, are the many others whose lives were upended and are still being whirled by turbulence. For them, mental health experts warn, the sense of security and calm integral to recovery remains elusive.
In Mayfield, a town of 10,000 in western Kentucky, the community as a whole was walloped by the initial shock of seeing entire stretches pulverized by the worst of the storm. Downtown remains mangled. People point to piles of debris and refer to them by what they used to be: a church, a shop, a family home.
On one local Facebook page, someone suggested using the street view feature on Google Maps as a form of escape: Cruise through a version of Mayfield unmarred by disaster.
The recovery has been hardest for those who were already disadvantaged. Many are struggling to fill basic needs, or wrestling with insurance companies or federal relief programs. “People were hurting long before Dec. 10,” said Steven Elder, the president of the Mayfield Community Foundation, a nonprofit raising money to help residents recover from the tornado, buying mattresses, windshields and even cars for some who have no other mode of transportation. “That’s the disaster that’s going to set these people back a lifetime. They’ve fallen into a hole they’ll never get out of.”
Jaime Massó’s two jobs — as a church pastor and an educator working in the local school district’s afternoon programs — offer unique vantage points to observe the pain inflicted by the tornado.
He marvels at the resilience of children — and worries about the exhaustion and anger among the adults who show up at the church, Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana.
Gina Stubblefield was there last week, pleading for help. She told the pastor she needed diapers for her father, who is terminally ill. She needed gas. She needed money.
Among those struggling most are the workers from the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, many of whom were trapped when the tornado struck, bringing the building down on top of them. The company has laid off half of the plant’s 500 employees but says it intends to reopen a factory in Mayfield in the spring and hire them back.
Nine people were killed in the factory collapse. For the survivors and their families, recovery has been slow.
Flor Almazan has regained the use of her arms and legs and is learning to handle the nightmares. “At first I used to dream that I was under there, under all those rocks,” she said. “Now, when I have another nightmare, I wake up and tell myself that I am safe at home, with my family. I have to tell myself that I am OK.”
Darryl Johnson, whose sister was killed at the factory, has checked in just about every day with his nieces and nephew — her grown children. He was trying to give his brother-in-law some space. He could tell he needed the room to grieve.
“Eventually, it got to me,” Johnson said. “I’m a fisherman. I was at the lake one day. I turned into the lake — that’s how hard I cried. You cry so hard your throat gets sore and you can’t speak, and finally, it was over. I just put my feet on the ground and said, ‘Get back to work. You’ve got a job to do.’ ”
Holt was working the night shift at the candle factory when the storm tore through, leaving him pinned under the rubble for hours. He drained the battery on his cellphone posting videos on Snapchat, desperate to tell his family and friends he loved them.
He feared he would not make it out. He feared for his brother, who worked there too and was similarly trapped.
Weeks later, Holt is grateful to be alive and for the company of his brother, who spent several days in a coma but is now recovering at home. But he is also depressed and saddled with new fears.
Holt had prided himself on his physical fitness, but he lost 20 pounds in the hospital and feels out of shape. He is even more concerned about his mental health. “An able mind,” he said, “is 10 times better than an able body.”
Holt knows the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He was once haunted by them. He served in the Army, deploying to Afghanistan as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter. When he returned, family and friends told him he seemed different. He sensed it, too.
“I can’t say that it went to drugs, I can’t say it went to gambling or women,” Holt said of his monthly income that seemed to vanish. “It was like I was walking on a cloud for a whole year. Just giving people money, trying to help people, but I wasn’t helping myself.”
He said he was certain of one thing: “I’m not going through that again.” He knows that is easier said than done.
Before he started at the candle factory about three months ago, Holt was working with young people, coaching them in sports and taking them on college tours. “I was broke but I was happy,” he said. The job at the factory paid only $15 an hour, but he could work nights, leaving his days free — in theory, at least — for coaching.
In a way, he is still coaching. He is often on the phone with his candle factory co-workers, trying to help them deal with the trauma. “Instead of sugar coating,” he said, “I’m just letting them know: There are going to be bad days.”