In the destructive aftermath of the EF-4 tornado, volunteers began gathering when the sun rose Dec. 11, 2021, at Brown’s Farm Fresh Produce on Kentucky 69, just north of Hartford.
It became the makeshift base of a major volunteer effort that would become the Ohio County Long-Term Recovery Team.
Matthew Sickling, the team’s general manager, and Ray Goff, cleanup project coordinator and social worker, were among the organization’s 15 volunteer members.
“Day one, I just brought a grill and a trailer here and loads of people started showing up — about 250 that first day,” Goff said. “…If they were going to help, we knew we had to feed them.”
Initially, it was cleaning and clearing debris.
Michael Brown, owner of Brown’s Farm Fresh Produce with his wife, Korey, had lost his greenhouses and suffered property damage. But they welcomed volunteers and donations to help those affected by the tornado.
“There was no discussion,” said Michael Brown. “People just started the next morning dropping off items for people in need and it only grew from there. Before you knew it, our house was full of food and people were just coming seek it out as needed. There was no question or thought as to whether or not we should do this. The community had a need and we just offered whatever we had.
About a week after the tornado, Sickling said they were encouraged to get more organized and put together a recovery team.
And in doing so, it would create an official funding outlet that would be needed to rebuild the homes that were lost.
“At first that’s what really held us back because we didn’t have any funds,” Sickling said. “We operated with money. And then thankfully – slowly – we started getting support from Samaritan’s Purse, the Red Cross, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and different organizations like that.
Those who lost their homes struggled to figure out what to do, Sickling said.
“People whose homes were destroyed were in a bit of shock; they didn’t know what to do; they didn’t know where to turn,” Sickling said. “They would go to FEMA and the government and get turned down most of the time. They really lost hope.
To get an idea of the number of homes in need of repair or completely rebuilt, the salvage team held a day at Ohio County Park for homeowners to report their damage.
After that day, Sickling said they had 60 homes on their list and over the next few weeks they followed up with them.
“A lot of them had minor damage and we were able to take care of that,” he said. “But about 12 to 15 (owners) suffered significant damage to the point that they needed (financial) help.”
Over the past year, the recovery team has managed to bring home more than half of the hardest hit families.
“We have about eight who have already moved in; we have five that we are currently working on and we are waiting for another one to start,” Sickling said.
The recovery team is planning a banquet tonight at the Ohio County Extension Office, 1337 Clay St., Hartford.
The banquet is meant to thank everyone who provided relief after the tornado, recognize families and reflect on how far the community has come in the past year, Sickling said.
“I’ve heard some people say we shouldn’t celebrate, but at the same time, it’s not a tornado celebration,” Sickling said. “It’s a celebration of the fact that we’ve come together and together we’ve been able to accomplish things that we really didn’t think were possible.”
With the recovery team operating from his farm, Michael Brown said he has seen firsthand the compassion people have for each other.
“It was amazing how the Lord put this on people’s hearts to help so much,” said Michael Brown.
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