Just two weeks before Christmas, two deadly tornados tore across the heart of the U.S. Among the hardest hit areas were the 14 western Kentucky counties covered by Paducah, Ky., Local 816.
“The storms rolled through like a freight train,” said Local 816 organizer Chad Rennison. “They did their thing and moved on, destroying everything in their path in about 30 minutes.”
|Two powerful tornados on Dec. 10 leveled buildings across Western Kentucky, like this building in downtown Mayfield.
Photo credit: FEMA
As always after such tragedies, IBEW members from all over North America rushed almost immediately afterward to offer professional and financial aid to the residents and businesses in the affected communities. One notable relief effort came from the members of Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575, which covers four counties over on the eastern part of the Bluegrass State.
“We know that if we ever needed help, our IBEW brothers and sisters would be there for us,” explained Local 575 Business Manager Dan Shirey, who also represents the IBEW International Executive Council’s Third District.
The National Weather Service said that the strong Dec. 10 storm system that brewed along a path from the Ozark Mountains to the Great Lakes produced nearly 60 tornadoes. One violent twister spun up in northwest Tennessee and traveled east about 165 miles across western Kentucky – essentially the entire length of Local 816’s jurisdiction. Another also formed in Tennessee, this time moving a nearly parallel 123 miles through Local 816’s territory before finally dissipating in Todd County, Ky.
Right after the storms stopped, Rennison said, “We had members volunteering, trying to help people and do whatever they could.” Locals and individual members from all over the country also were sending emails asking, “Can I come down and help?”
“I don’t think most people can understand the chaos that ensues when something like this happens,” Rennison said. “The storms hit at night, so we didn’t really understand how bad things were until the next morning.”
Large relief organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the America Red Cross mobilized almost instantly. But as Local 575’s Shirey saw on the news just how widespread the damage had been, he knew that his local needed to pitch in, too.
“After learning what their needs were, [Local 575 organizers] Joe Dillow and Randy Brown reached out to our executive board about buying some supplies,” Shirey said. The board agreed without hesitation and authorized the trio to spend up to $10,000 on necessities such as diapers, blankets, toiletries and cleaning items.
Donated power generators in Paducah were plentiful, Shirey learned, “but they said they needed more plugs and power cords, so we went to every local supply house we could,” he said. “Lots of folks in our community went out and bought supplies, too.”
While the Local 575 members were shopping, Dillow had a conversation with his friend Skip Bailey, an organizer for neighboring Huntington, W. Va., Local 317, and mentioned what the members of the Portsmouth local were doing.
“We’ve always worked closely with Local 575,” said Bailey, who passed the word on to his business manager, Shane Wolfe. “’We absolutely want to split the cost with them,’” Bailey recalled Wolfe saying. “And when we brought it up [at the next local meeting], there was no second thought about it.
“You see these things in the news, but I know when you get there, you get a whole new feeling for it,” Bailey said. “We were glad and willing to join the efforts.”
Working with Local 575 Training Director Matt Louanglath, supplies were gathered first at the local’s Electrical Training Academy building and then packed into just about every inch of the academy’s 20-foot trailer. At 4:30 on the morning of Friday, Dec. 17, “we drove 6-1/2 hours nonstop to Princeton, Ky., another one of the towns that was shook pretty hard,” Shirey said.
When he, Dillow and Brown arrived at their destination, Rennison was there to help them stage their distribution efforts out of an empty former grocery store. “Chad had worked out the logistics,” Shirey said, “and later he took us around to survey some of the damage.”
It was sometimes hard to grasp the amount of devastation they were seeing throughout the area, Rennison said. “Lots of people we dealt with still had structures, but we were also seeing people who had nothing. Whole city blocks were just piles of rubble. We were hooking up generators to structures that were still livable in low-income areas and to homes of elderly people who had been without power for nearly a week – no baths, no heat.
“We’ve also got guys volunteering to rebuild services,” Rennison said. “[Local 816] Business Manager [Jimmy] Evans has been coordinating with local politicians and the Kentucky Department of Housing and Building Trades to make sure all inspections are still being done.”
At this writing, at least 77 deaths have been attributed directly to the two tornados, which also leveled more than 1,000 properties and left thousands homeless.
“To our knowledge, one member lost everything,” Rennison said, as did a retired IBEW member in Tennessee and the widow of another retired member. AccuWeather has estimated that the cost of the storms could reach $18 billion in total damages and economic losses.
“I think we have a responsibility to help,” Rennison said. “We need a lot more love and compassion these days. I’d also like to think that people would help us out if the situation was reversed.”
Rennison believes an experience like this can make electrical workers think about to their apprenticeship roots. “Back then, you had to learn how to work as a team,” he said. “That thinking transfers over to your whole life without you even knowing it.”
The union relief committee of the Kentucky AFL-CIO and the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council established a disaster fund to raise money to help union families affected by the tornadoes. Mail checks, made out to the United Way of Kentucky, to P.O. Box 4653, Louisville, KY 40204-0653, and write “Union Disaster Relief” on your check’s subject line.