Spared From Tornado Damage, Colleges Help Rebuild

Colleges and universities in Kentucky and Illinois were not directly hit by the region’s recent catastrophic tornadoes, but they’re stepping up to aid disaster relief efforts.

December 14, 2021
 
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Tornadoes ripped through five states over the weekend, destroying dozens of homes and businesses and killing at least 70 people.

After a record-breaking tornado ripped through Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday, Western Kentucky University opened its doors to residents who needed internet access or a shower.

The public university itself was not damaged by the storm, though parts of the campus—including the president’s home—were still without power on Monday afternoon. Compared with the surrounding neighborhoods, the university was lucky.

“One hundred yards from our southern edge, the neighborhoods were completely destroyed,” said Jace Lux, director of media relations at Western Kentucky. “Had it shifted just the length of a football field, it would have been a much different story.”

The tornado was not the first to hit Bowling Green, but it was by far the most catastrophic, according to Lux. Kentucky governor Andy Beshear said the storm may have traveled as far as 227 miles and called it the “most severe tornado event in Kentucky’s history.”

Other tornadoes, strong winds and severe weather swept the Midwest over the weekend, destroying dozens of homes and businesses in at least five states, killing as many as 70 people and causing an Amazon warehouse to collapse in Edwardsville, Ill.

Nearby colleges and universities, largely spared from the damage, are now helping their communities clean up and rebuild.

Western Kentucky provided the public with access to its computer labs, where residents without power or internet access could come to file home and medical insurance claims. The university also opened up its recreation center for community members to rest, use the bathroom or take a shower. University officials are connecting students and employees eager to volunteer with disaster relief organizations that are helping the city clear debris.

“We have a lot of faculty, staff, students and alumni who want to help,” Lux said. “We’re seeing entire offices of faculty and staff who are going out together as an office to assist in cleanup efforts.”

The University of Kentucky’s Research and Education Center, in Princeton, Ky., took a direct hit from a tornado. The center’s building was destroyed. The university has posted a video on YouTube to show the destruction (below).

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Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, about a mile from Western Kentucky’s campus, also escaped damage. A college spokesperson said the campus had power as of Monday morning, but college officials were uncertain whether the campus had lost power over the weekend.

Murray State University sits in Murray, Ky., about 30 minutes southeast of Mayfield, which experienced widespread storm damage. The public university opened its basketball stadium to the public as a warming center and shelter, The Lexington Herald Leader reported.

“We have worked throughout the weekend in order to provide shelter, food and campus accommodations to displaced individuals, National Guard members, FEMA personnel and first-responders,” Bob Jackson, president of the university, said in a statement Monday. The university also closed its recreation and wellness center to accommodate National Guard members and others, according to Jackson.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville is located about five miles from the Amazon warehouse that collapsed Saturday after it was hit by an EF-3 tornado, which the National Weather Service defines as bearing winds between 136 and 165 miles per hour. Some Southern Illinois students are employed by Amazon, but they were not among those killed in the building collapse.

The public university weathered the storm unscathed, according to spokesperson Megan Wieser. Power was down on campus between 8:30 p.m. Friday and approximately 9:00 a.m. Saturday, and the university relied on backup generators to continue to power “primary appliances and service areas,” such as freezers, medical equipment and police services.

Southern Illinois University police have assisted local law enforcement at the Amazon warehouse site.

University officials reached out to students on Sunday morning to encourage those affected by the storms to seek university counseling services, and they urged faculty members to be lenient with students.

“We recognize that students may be affected in a wide range of ways,” university officials wrote in an email. “For some, these events have brought direct trauma and challenge. While the connection may not be as direct for some, feelings of fear, worry, loss or anxiety are still real and meaningful. If a student has experienced extraordinary challenges or hardships due to the storms, we encourage them to please work with individual faculty members to determine if any adjustments can be made. To that end, we encourage faculty to continue to provide a student-centered approach rooted in care.”

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