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Tornado relief efforts reveal a deep well of support

Owen Coon’s farm truck and trailer were loaded with relief supplies and rocked side to side as they hit debris on a western Kentucky road. Coon sat behind the wheel, taking in the destruction: overturned grain bins, concrete slabs where homes were wiped from their bases, and makeshift cattle pens in open fields. Amid the chaos, Coon stepped out of his truck and approached a church that was left standing. There, he saw an overflow of hope and supplies that people like him were bringing from all over the country.

“The damage gets a lot of attention,” Coon said as he recounted tornados that struck Kentucky in December 2021. “But the overwhelming thing we saw while we were down there is how many people were there from everywhere pouring in to help.”

For Coon, a senior applied agricultural economics major from Wingate, Indiana, this was a return trip to Kentucky. Last summer, he completed an internship with LG Seeds where he developed close relationships with the farmers and ranchers in the area — he was based in Murray, Kentucky, and worked throughout most of Kentucky and Tennessee. When he heard how the disaster affected the people from this region, he called on his family and friends from Montgomery County to help.

Owen Coon Owen Coon, a senior agricultural economics: applied agricultural economics major from Wingate, Indiana, traveled to Kentucky to help those affected by disastrous tornadoes. He expected to see damage, but was struck by the outpouring of support for the area’s residents. Photo by Grace Hasler.

“My dad posted on Facebook that we were going down there, and all of a sudden, . . . we had donations pouring in from everywhere. We almost had to take another vehicle just to fit the stuff,” Coon said.

After a week of gathering donations, Coon and his father packed up donations that included more than 150 quilts, cash donations, fuel and fuel jugs, clothes, books, toys, and even hay and grain for livestock. The Coons also brought their own construction equipment like skidsteers, chainsaws, and trucks and trailers in the relief convoy. As they made their trip to Kentucky, Coon and his father began to wonder if their supplies would be needed.

“My dad was talking and said, ‘You know, we see some trees down and stuff but not all the damage everyone’s talking about,’” Coon recalled. “And as soon as he said that we came over this little hill and the town of Casey was supposed to be on the other side, but it was just nothing.”

The once bustling and lively small town had been reduced to two churches and a trail of debris. One church collected donations and the other provided shelter for people who had lost their homes. Amid the chaos, a woman sat on the steps of one church and sobbed.

“The lady that was at the desk there checking in donations and stuff, she was bawling her eyes out. Not because of the storm and stuff, but because she couldn’t believe how many people came in from absolutely all over the place,” Coon said.

It turns out that three semis full of supplies had arrived ahead of Coon and his father. Looking on the scene, he knew that these communities were supported.

As they drove on, Coon and his dad saw more tornado damage: semis had been thrown 75 yards from where they originally sat, a 3-foot-wide strip where the center of a tornado tore through a wheat field, and boards that had been thrust with such force that they drove through the roof of a car. However, what struck them the most, was how often they were turned away because there were so many volunteers and supplies coming into the area.

“It was refreshing to get away from politics, and the news, and just see people helping people,” Coon explained.

At various locations, Coon and his father were able to unload batches of specific donation items. When they finally unloaded the last of their donations, Coon breathed a sigh of relief as he climbed in the truck. He couldn’t help but remember how much donations from the community had helped his family when they faced a disaster of their own.

Thirteen years ago, Coon’s family faced a total-loss house fire. Coon and his brother rode his grandmother’s bus route that day and when she pulled into her own driveway instead of theirs, the brothers learned that their home was gone.

But, like those who faced disaster in Kentucky, Coon’s family found overwhelming support from their community. The 4-H club showed up to repaint the old rental house the family moved in to, and members of their community brought meals to them for several months after the fire.

“I don’t remember the house fire so much as how many people helped,” Coon said. “Now, whenever we see something bad happen, if we can get to it, my family always takes the approach that we had a lot of people help us, so we’ve got every need to go help them.”

Coon has served as a volunteer firefighter for six years now and values investing in his community by helping others.

“It’s just important for everybody to help out whenever they can. I think we have a responsibility to help each other even when it inconveniences us, because there is a very real chance that at some point, we’re going to need help. If we don’t give it out, then I don’t know how we can ever expect for people to come help us.”

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Grace Hasler is a student writer majoring in agricultural communication in Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication

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