After the storms

Tornadoes ripped through several states last weekend, including western Kentucky. The town of Mayfield, which is in the service area of West Kentucky Community and Technical College, was especially hit hard. (Photo: State Farm/Creative Commons)

The violent storms that devastated parts of Kentucky and neighboring states nearly a week ago didn’t cause much damage to nearby community college campuses. But several communities that are home to many of their students, staff, faculty, friends and family are in ruins.

Leaders from nearby colleges are doing what they can to position their institutions to help those communities. More than 80 people so far — including 74 from Kentucky — have lost their lives to tornadoes that rumbled through on late Dec. 10 and early Dec. 11. Many homes and businesses were damaged or flattened.

Officials at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKYCTC), Madisonville Community College (MCC) and West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC) started to check on students and employees as soon as they could on Saturday after the storms passed. Many of them lost their homes or suffered other property damage. One SKYCTC student was killed.

The next day, SKYCTC President Philip Neal drove to the college’s three campuses in Bowling Green. The tornado missed them by a few blocks. Aside from the loss of power and some electrical damage from power surges, the physical campuses were OK, he said.

The communities serviced by MCC were hit hard as well. Its campuses also did not sustain any damage to buildings or structures, said President Cynthia Kelley. Its Muhlenberg County campus did experience a power outage and has yet to regain online services or phone service, she said.

Checking on everyone

MCC had a similar approach in checking on employees and students. First thing Saturday morning, the college’s leaders began a check-in with faculty and staff.

“Even though we knew many would not have power or connectivity at the time, we sent messages asking employees to check-in and check on one another,” Kelley said. “Throughout the day we continued to work together via email, texts and social media messaging to check the status of our staff.”

Beginning on Sunday, the college asked faculty and staff to reach out to students to check on their status and their needs. This process is continuing as the community is stepping in to assist with housing, food and clothing for all affected in the area, Kelley said.

WKCTC President Anton Reece, whose service area includes the devastated town of Mayfield, held a cabinet meeting Monday morning to address the emergency and the numerous inquiries about the status of faculty, staff and students.

With power being initially down and challenges with the internet, college officials used multiple modes to communicate, including email, SNAP, text and website updates. Reece sent a message to the college community outlining WKCTC’s efforts as well as where emergency relief was available in the community, including food assistance, emergency funds, shelters, counseling services and more. WKCTC also worked with other area colleges to provide support and supplies to affected families.

In his message to the community, Reece finished with words of encouragement: “We are resilient, we will get through this, and ‘You’ve got this! #WKCTC proud.’”

‘Heartbreaking and heartwarming’

Neal said the devastation undoubtedly has had an emotional effect on the college community, as well as others who have come to help, including volunteers, emergency personnel and line workers restoring downed power lines. But despite the overwhelming hardships, he is proud of how his college and community have come together to help — a “culture of caring,” he said.

“It’s been heartbreaking and heartwarming,” Neal said Wednesday afternoon while refueling a generator that was powering his home. (He hopes power will be restored by Christmas.) “It almost brings you to tears to think about the amount of support that we’re getting here as a result of this tragedy.”

Kelley sees the same thing in her area. Both students and staff are dealing with not only the loss of homes but also the loss of family members.

“We know that we have students who have been displaced and may only have the clothes they were wearing at the time of the storm,” she said.

Kelley also noted the “culture of caring” in her college’s local communities, with staff going out on their own to gather donations of food and clothing, and just comforting friends and neighbors.

“We currently have employees helping to clear debris, sorting and organizing at donation centers, helping with humane societies and donating supplies,” she said.

MCC has an Allied Health Simulation Home that it has opened to staff who do not have water and/or power, Kelley said. They can come to the home for showers, to wash dishes and clothes, and to charge electronic devices.

The college’s tractor-trailers used for driver training are assisting at a donation distribution center for sorting and storage of goods to be distributed to those in need. The health sciences staff has been working throughout the days to gather and deliver needed food and supplies. They are also on hand to assist with any health-related needs.

The Madisonville College Foundation has established the MCC Student and Family Relief Fund to receive donations to help MCC students and staff with financial needs as they rebuild their lives after this disaster. The foundations at SKYCTC and WKCTC are also taking donations to help students who need emergency money.

WKCTC, which has about 1,500 students and faculty and staff in the Mayfield/Graves/Marshall region, has two campus locations in the Mayfield/Graves County area that are being used in coordination with relief agencies to provide wi-fi, Internet access and charging stations, in addition to resources and supplies to its students, faculty and staff and community members, Reece said.

“We are relying a lot on partnerships with agencies and have requests for office space to process unemployment services, and food and water distribution,” Reece said.

The long haul

All three leaders said their colleges stand ready to help their college families and larger communities get through the tragedy.

“We will continue to do all we can to support all of our campus family impacted,” Reece said. “This is a long, long recovery and will require ongoing preparation and planning.”

Kelley added: “We have learned over the past couple of years new ways to be flexible and nimble in helping students find their better lives. We know recovery will take a while, but MCC is not going anywhere, and we will do our best to help our students move forward.”

Video from the National Weather Service Louisville of the damage caused by a tornado in Bowling Green.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.