Suffering in the Midwest: People’s experience of the tornado outbreak

By Gage Skidmore. Jason Rannekamp. Lance Hutchens. Logan Covington. Conner Sheppard.

The first thing Robert Avila does when he walks into a hurricane zone is check the weather – look out for tornadoes – this time in Frankfort, Kentucky.

More than 10 years ago, Hurricane Isabel destroyed the county seat of Westman, his rural town of 673 people, 95 miles southeast of Lexington. Avila, now 52, had already moved away from Westman when Isabel struck and he was blown back in like a snowball – the storm toppled the roof of his new home and pulled part of the roof off his old home.

Picking through debris in the center of the debris pile, Avila looks at an old tree.

“That’s old wood, doesn’t mean much anymore,” he says. “But it’s my dad’s tree. He grew up on it. He was born on that tree.”

Avila is volunteering with the American Red Cross chapter in Frankfort. Two years ago, this was the scene when Isabel struck. After rebuilding, Avila’s also spending the week helping neighbors clean up debris from this latest storm.

“The nightmares are gone, because the last two, two years I’ve been physically working on people,” he says. “It’s almost like it’s a dream.”

The tornado outbreak in the Midwest, centered on Friday night and Saturday morning, left hundreds of people injured and killed hundreds, even though experts say tornadoes tend to be fairly unpredictable. Farther south, on the Northern Kentucky shore, Scott Blevins is helping people clear their homes from the ruins of storms that killed two people in suburban Cincinnati.

“It’s unbelievable,” Blevins says, looking at the space between the siding where his home once stood. “I can’t believe how straight this thing is.”

Blevins, a 53-year-old personal training coach, rented an old house at the end of a cul-de-sac from his neighbor, who also lived in a mobile home in the same neighborhood.

The neighbor, Kerry Mason, was killed by a falling tree when Friday’s storms barreled into his mobile home, along with his 10-year-old daughter. Mason’s son, Bryce Mason, was not home. Blevins says it’s unthinkable that he didn’t hear or feel the roar of the storm. He came home from a run just before 4 in the afternoon on Friday, and he didn’t have time to check for damage.

“I turned my back, and I could hear stuff being thrown around. It sounded like a lawnmower going back and forth,” he says. “As I turned my back, the house started to fly sideways like a riverroller, and then the house just cleared, and it was gone.”

“All you hear now is the tree the lid just pop up and get hit with sand,” Blevins says. “It’s total devastation. It’s heart-wrenching and I’ve never seen anything like it. When I’m at work, it’s a different story.”

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