This past Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that struck Western Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021. The local impact was great, with more than 70 homes destroyed and 11 lives lost in the Bremen area. There was some destruction in Central City as well.
To commemorate the date, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bremen held a special memorial service for the community, in the gymnasium at Bremen Elementary School. The school has been home to the congregation since last year, when the EF4 tornado ripped through town and destroyed the church, which had stood in the community for more than 100 years.
Seating set up on the basketball court and in the bleachers was nearly full as members of the community greeted one another, and children darted around before taking their seats.
As the service began, Jordan Baize strummed a guitar and the crowd became quiet. He was joined by his 10 year-old son Max, and his sister, Whitney Brown. They sang a familiar hymn and the crowd sang along.
T.J. Milam, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, gave a moving sermon, recounting the horrible night on Dec. 10, 2021, and reminding those survivors the community is there to support them.
“Each and every person here is a testimony of love to you. We are here tonight to support you, to rally behind you and to be by your side,” Milam said.
Milam described the horror of the night, telling the story of his own survival. He said he had gone to bed for the night, when he got a phone call from his mother, letting him know about a social media post asking churches to open their basements as a shelter in the storm.
“We all got in the basement and it came. And as fast as it came through, it was gone and destruction laid in its wake,” Milam remembered.
Milam then recalled how he stood in the church parking lot, and looked toward his home. The house was gone.
Bremen Mayor Allen Miller said the city is still working to get everyone who was displaced by the tornado into permanent housing.
“About 50% of our people are back in permanent homes,” Miller said, “and we’ve still got a lot under construction.” He said there are only a few who have not started any construction to rebuild their homes.
Miller, who was appointed by the Muhlenberg County fiscal court as a disaster relief coordinator, said he is still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse the county for costs incurred in the cleanup process, and seek grants through the agency for future projects, such as storm mitigation.
FEMA and the American Red Cross have completed any residential aid they were able to provide, and those impacted by the tornado are now being assisted through the Muhlenberg County Long Term Disaster Committee.
The committee, which is a local agency created after a tornado in 2008, has been assisting people with their FEMA and Red Cross applications, and is there to fill unmet needs.
“We have been able to address the needs of about everyone who has asked for it,” said Dr. Freddie Mayes, chairman of the disaster relief committee.
Mayes said there have been about 115 people request assistance after the tornado, and he said they are down to a handful who they have not helped. He said those who have not been served are still in the planning process. Funds are still available to help these people, once they have decided how to move forward.
Mayes said the committee keeps in touch with those who have not received any assistance, and they may be able to distribute a second round of assistance as further donations and funding continue to come in.
A donation distribution center at Powers Chapel General Baptist Church in Bremen will be open through the end of the year, Miller said.
The fellowship hall at the church is stocked like a store, and tornado survivors can shop there, at no cost, for items they need. After the first of the year, the distribution center will be moved to Powderly, and housed at a newly established disaster donation hub operated by the county. The center is located on Kentucky 189 at the corner of Doss Drive.
Miller said he feels the community is doing pretty good, a year after the disaster and they continue to come together when they can. He said they recently held a toy drive, and invited those who were affected by the disaster and their families to choose toys for holiday gifts.
Miller said he was able to talk to people when they came for the toy drive. “People seemed really upbeat, I think they’re doing really well.” The city hosted a Christmas party on Friday, the day before the memorial service, with food and activities for kids.
The Long Term Disaster Committee will eventually go dormant, and meet only once each year. They become active again when there is a disaster declaration, whether from federal, state or county government.
To round out the memorial service on Dec. 10, the lights in the gymnasium were dimmed. The crowd switched on their battery-powered candles, and held them up as a video showed the names of those who had perished in the tornado’s destruction.
They were Anna Marie Brown, Brian Crick, Jon Hardin, Matthew Ferguson, Meagan Flener, Scottie Flener, Rita Gish, Billy Miller, Judy Miller, Chase Oglesby, Cheryl Snodgrass, and Diane Varney.
When the lights came back up, the crowd milled around, sharing stories and comforting one another. The kids went back to zipping around, and a meal was shared in the school cafeteria.