Early morning tornado devastates businesses, homes across county

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Michael J. Collins

Crews walk along the closed off section of US 31 bypass on Dec. 11.

A tornado touched down in Bowling Green during the early hours of Saturday, Dec. 11, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

The storm was part of a major system that produced a large number of tornadoes across the central Midwest from Friday evening into Saturday morning. 

“We believe our death toll from this event will exceed 50 Kentuckians and probably end up 70 to 100,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said Saturday morning. “To all of our Kentucky families that are impacted by this, we want you to know that we are here for you, we love you, we are praying for you.”

WKU is in touch with its residential staff and there have not been any reported injuries at this time. The university has also established an emergency operations center on campus.

The university will not be holding its commencement activities and students in dorms will receive an extension for when they must move out for winter break as both events were due to happen Saturday.

President Tim Caboni sent an email to faculty and students early on Saturday, calling the storm and its damage a “tremendous loss in our surrounding area.”

 “A complete evaluation will take some time, as our main focus now is making sure that everyone in our campus community is safe,” Caboni said. “In the coming days and weeks we will repair any damage and clear debris. But the significance of this event will remain with us forever.”

The email announced that a student living off-campus was killed, but Warren County Sheriff’s Office later said the fatality was “believed to instead be the close relative of a WKU student,” according to Director of Media Relations Jace Lux.

“Our thoughts are with all members of our broader community dealing with unimaginable pain and loss this morning, including our students who lost close family members last night,” Lux said in an email.

WKU Housing and Residence Life verified that there are no injuries or fatalities among on-campus students, according to the email. 

Fortunately for the campus itself, there were few signs of major damage. Small debris such as branches and wood were scattered across the south side of campus, but the university so far has not found severe structural damage.

There African American Museum was damaged by a fallen tree and other debris. A row of houses near the roundabout received a heavy pummeling as some now stand without roofs.

Chance Davis, a freshman studying biology and a resident of Hugh Poland, said he woke up at 1:30 a.m. receiving a call from his stepmother asking if he had taken shelter yet. Students crowded in the lobby of the residence hall while avoiding windows. 

“There’s one point where the winds were so bad the doors were swinging open,” Davis said.

Aaron Heck, another Hugh Poland resident, said there was a whistling noise but he had not yet realized the tornado was so close.  

“When the wind got the worst, we saw a bright flash outside and then the power went out,” Heck said.

Frankie Brooker and Sofia Fromeyer, both WKU seniors, experienced damage to their gutters and cars outside their home. Brooker said he heard “a freight train” while he was in the house.

“It came really fast because we were out on the front porch watching the lightning then all of a sudden, within like 20 minutes, it got so bad,” Fromeyer said.

Fromeyer said they were lucky in comparison to other homes in Bowling Green.

Sam Bailey, a junior film major, said part of the side of his house was blown off and the window of neighbor’s car was smashed. Bailey took shelter at the Kappa Sig house throughout the storm.

Sam Bailey stands next to the tree that fell the morning of Dec. 11. Bailey also said a large grill that was not his own was thrown into his backyard. (Michael J. Collins)

“There’s bricks all from the WK Liquors right here,” Bailey said. “I was in there earlier today, I hope we have a GoFundMe set up for [the WK Liquors owner]. He’s a very nice man.”

Bailey’s neighbor texted him to ask if she could take shelter in his basement with her cat. When he returned home, both were safe.

“I would have expected it to be like a freight train, but she said she couldn’t really hear it,” Bailey said. 

Justin Shepherd, owner of Spencer’s Coffee on the bypass, expressed his gratitude that his business avoided major harm. According to Shepherd, the main repairs will involve some fixes to the siding of the building.

“At 4:30 this morning I woke up and for some reason had a bunch of messages, I started looking at those and I was like ‘I better go and check it out,’” Shepherd said. “I came over here before it was light and of course the power’s out, so I could only tell a little bit of how bad the bypass got hit until the sun came up.”

Michelle Duhon, a lifelong Bowling Green resident, had a close encounter with the twister. Her apartment, located just off Russellville Road near a set of railroad tracks, only received a pelting of debris. 

“I work at Hilligans, I got off at midnight last night. It was like one o’clock or something, all of a sudden the wind starts picking up and I start hearing a train,” Duhon said. “I’m watching and all of a sudden, in sync, all of the power lines burst into spark. I shut my door really fast and right after that the wind blew it back open.”

Luckily, Duhon’s three-year-old twins weathered the storm.

“They’re OK, they’re all good,” Duhon said.

More updates will be available in the coming days as the true damage and cost of the storm become clear.

Content Manager Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy.

Content Manager Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.

Editor-in-Chief Michael J. Collins can be reached at [email protected] topper.wku.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mjcollinsnews.