Ohio County volunteer recovery team helped quicken tornado assistance

Dec. 10—In the EF-4 tornado's destructive aftermath, volunteers began assembling when the sun came up on Dec. 11, 2021, at Brown's Farm Fresh Produce on Kentucky 69 just north of Hartford.

It became the makeshift base for a major volunteer effort that would develop into the Ohio County Long Term Recovery Team.

Matthew Sickling, the team's executive director, and Ray Goff, clean-up project coordinator and case worker, were among the organization's 15 volunteer members.

"On day one, I just brought a grill and trailer down here and just gobs 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 about the cleanup and clearing debris.

Michael Brown, who owns Brown's Farm Fresh Produce with his wife, Korey, had lost his greenhouses and suffered property damage. But they welcomed the volunteers and the donations to help those impacted by the tornado.

"There was no discussion," Michael Brown said. "People just started the next morning dropping off items for people in need and it just grew from there. Before you knew it, our house was full of food and people would just come and get it as needed. There was no question or thought about whether or not we should do this. The community had a need and we just offered everything we had."

About a week after the tornado, Sickling said they were encouraged to become more organized and establish a recovery team.

And by doing so, it would create an official funding outlet that would be needed for rebuilding homes that were lost.

"Early on, that's what really held us back because we didn't have any funds," Sickling said. "We were operating on pennies. And then fortunately — slowly — we began to get some backing from Samaritan's Purse, Red Cross, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and different organizations like that."

Those who lost their homes were struggling to figure out what to do, Sickling said.

"The people whose homes were destroyed were somewhat in a state 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 were getting denied most of the time. They really lost hope."

To get a sense of how many homes needed repairs or totally rebuilt, the recovery 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 followed up with them.

"Many of them had minor damage and we were able to take care of them," he said. "But about 12 to 15 (homeowners) had significant damage to the point they were needing some (financial) assistance."

During the past year, the recovery team has managed to return more than half of the harder hit families to their homes.

"We have about eight that have already moved in; we have five that we're presently working on and one more we're waiting to start," Sickling said.

The recovery team is planning a banquet tonight at the Ohio County Extension Office, 1337 Clay St., in Hartford.

The banquet is about showing appreciation to all those who provided help after the tornado, recognizing the families and about reflecting on how far the community has come during the past year, Sickling said.

"I heard some people say we shouldn't celebrate but at the same time it's not a celebration of the tornado," Sickling said. "It's a celebration of the fact we've come back together and together we've been able to accomplish things we really didn't think were going to be possible."

With the recovery team operating from his farm, Michael Brown said he was able to witness firsthand the compassion people had for one another.

"It was amazing how the Lord put that on people's hearts to help so much," Michael Brown said.