In the early hours of December 11, 2021, a group of tornados cut a violent path across six U.S. states, traveling over 250 miles, injuring hundreds of people, and, tragically, taking 77 lives. The town of Mayfield, Kentucky was “devastated” — hundreds of homes, businesses, and other buildings were destroyed, and debris was thrown as high as 30,000 feet into the air.

After the tornados passed through their homes and neighborhoods, civic leaders in Kentucky literally got up off the ground and immediately went to work rebuilding their communities together. One leader told us that “we wanted to jump in and be able to assist other people and organizations to make sure that they are heard.” Most talked about the “huge problem” of displacement and worried about those individuals and families who could fall into the gaps between disaster assistance programs. Civic leaders were also concerned about the ability of Kentucky residents to access support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noting that many people “get discouraged after they get turned down initially and do not follow up and reapply.” They also warned that FEMA’s “allocated amounts for items are not realistic given today’s costs.”

To help address these concerns, The Rockefeller Foundation rapidly deployed a donation package to five organizations. With our donations, World Central Kitchen and Operation BBQ Relief delivered hot, fresh meals to first responders and volunteers on the ground. One Kentuckian noted that his town was in ruins and thanked Operation BBQ Relief for their “love, food, and selfless hearts.”

At the same time, civic leaders were quite worried about the long-term need for mental health services. With that in mind, we partnered with Americares, which deployed mental health specialists to help survivors and first responders cope with trauma and loss. We also supported United Way of Kentucky in rebuilding affected local chapters so they could resume operations and help their communities recover.

To ensure equitable access to relief aid, the Foundation donated to a coalition of local funders who prioritized providing recovery efforts for BIPOC, immigrant, refugee, and working-class Kentuckians. Organized by the Commonwealth Alliance Donor Table (CADT), Black Leadership Action Coalition Kentucky, Kentucky Civic Engagement Table, and Hood to the Holler, the coalition has been able to raise nearly $400,000 for its Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund.

We’ve been inspired by the stories we’ve heard about how coalition partners are supporting underserved people in Mayfield and the surrounding communities.

These stories include:

  • The Mayfield Minority Enrichment Center has provided prepaid Visa cards, paid utility bills, offered hot meals, moved community members into safe housing, and helped immigrant communities access government services. They’re currently focused on assisting people with car and transportation needs and providing household items to families that are starting over. From purchasing tennis shoes for a teenager displaced by the tornado to delivering generators to keep elderly people warm, the Center continues to respond to the unique needs of BIPOC and immigrant residents in what they call “tornado alley.”
  • Community Agenda for Regained Empowerment (CARE) has applied culturally relevant approaches to all its tornado relief efforts, reaching out to community members in several different languages. Following the storm, CARE quickly launched its Ethnic Foods Project, which provided weekly meals and fuel to over 100 individuals for two months and partnered with five local international markets, including a halal store, to help residents access appropriate foods.
  • Thousands of members of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) were directly affected by the tornado. In addition to providing hot meals, supplies, and direct cash assistance, the chapter created a wellness check system via text messaging for nearly 3,000 members. Not only does the system distribute important information about applying for federal assistance and avoiding scams, it also encourages community members to check on each other and alert the union when a fellow member may need additional outreach and support.

In speaking with the leaders of these and other organizations on the ground, a few important lessons emerged.

First, we learned that more must be done to invest in infrastructure in rural areas. CADT described Western Kentucky as an “infrastructure desert,” lacking in access to affordable, quality food, healthcare, Internet, and other key services. This lack of access made the response to and recovery from a natural disaster even more difficult. CADT and its partners are trying to seize this opportunity to build meaningful, sustainable infrastructure at the local level.

Second, donations should be directed to grassroots and community-based organizations whenever possible. In the first six weeks after the storm, 11,800 Kentuckians applied for FEMA assistance, but only 14% of those requests were approved, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. And even as relief funds poured into the state from private and non-government organizations, Kentuckians found them difficult to access. By directing their funding to organizations that had been working on the ground for years, CADT was able to deliver aid to communities often left out of traditional relief efforts.

And finally, disaster response efforts must be equitable, holistic, and built for the long term. The five organizations that The Rockefeller Foundation supported have thus far succeeded in meeting the short- and longer-term needs of the affected communities.

While it’s impossible to know when and where a natural disaster will hit, it is possible to respond in a way that makes a community stronger and more resilient than it was before. When these tragedies strike, we must help ensure all those in need can access support and care. The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support organizations doing just that in Mayfield and across Western Kentucky. And we will carry with us the lessons, the tenacity, and the inspiration that these Kentuckians have shared in the face of a terrible tragedy.