Last week, Kentucky and neighboring states were ravaged by tornadoes that claimed dozens of lives and tore apart thousands of families. Jessamine County was one of the lucky areas to be spared; however, the tornadic winds exposed some “very serious flaws in the area’s preparedness” for many of its residents.
On Friday, the head of the engineering and sciences library at the University of Kentucky, Susan K. Smith, was at work when the notice went out for all employees to go home to shelter as dangerous wind patterns were threatening tornadoes.
Living in a Jessamine County home without a basement, her first thought was to find shelter by calling the county’s fire and emergency-management departments for locations of shelters.
She was “shocked” to find out that there are none.
“We do not have shelters for people to go to before a tornado,” emergency-management director John V. Carpenter said. “We have shelter sites that we have set up for those who are displaced from their home, but there are not storm shelters to go in to get out of a storm.”
Concerned about future weather and infuriated by the events last week, Smith said she feels like a county of Jessamine’s size needs to be more than just capable of handling a disaster after it happens but able to provide places of shelters for those who, like her, do not have basements.
“We were lucky, but we’ve seen what weather like this does, and what about those in mobile homes?” she said. “What are those people supposed to do then? Why isn’t the city, or Jessamine County for that matter, a part of the program StormReady?”
Currently, only 45 of 120 Kentucky counties are considered StormReady, which is a classification applied by the National Weather Service. In all, there are only 54 StormReady designations in the commonwealth, and that includes three universities, two military sites and four communities. The closest sites to Jessamine are Fayette, Woodford and Mercer counties.
Smith is not the only one to feel the county needs to be StormReady or at least provide shelters in case of more dangerous weather. Carpenter said he has been fielding a lot of concerned calls about it since last week.
“StormReady is kind of a misconception — we’re virtually storm ready now,” Caprenter said. “We meet most of all the requirements to be a StormReady community. We just don’t have the signage out on the road.
“As we’ve been saying for years, people need to have their own plan of what to do and where to go, and if they’re in a mobile home, they need to have a plan to get out of it ahead of time.”
Due diligence of the surroundings and personal preparedness is the most important thing to surviving tornadoes, Carpenter said. Most likely the safest place a person is at is their home whether or not they have a basement, they need to find the smallest, windowless room on the lowest level of the house, possibly in a tub, and put a blanket or mattress over themselves for protection. That is, however, unless a person lives in a mobile home.
“You are safer lying in a ditch or ravine somewhere your body can get low to the contour of the ground,” he said, “than being in a mobile home.”
On Monday, Wilmore Mayor Harold Rainwater thanked the community churches and the police department for “jumping into action at the last minute” to provide churches as shelters and using vans to collect people who felt unsafe in their homes. Both the United Methodist Church and Free Mehodist Church opened their doors to more than 100 people.
“I’m not going to recommended leaving your home to go to a church, but I’m not going to discourage that either,” Carpenter said. “It’s not for me to say one place is safer than another or safer than their own home unless their in a mobile home.”
Overall, Carpenter said he was satisfied the county was prepared to handle any kind of natural disaster and the best advice he could give was citizens have a plan of their own.
For Smith, that answer is not enough.
“I’ve experienced tornadoes twice in my life,” she said. “We dodged a bullet this time, and the county needs to be better prepared next time.”