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Two years after deadly tornadoes, some Mayfield families are still waiting for housing

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Ashley Prince and her family have been chasing “normal” for years now.

Two years ago, the tornado that whipped through Mayfield peeled the roof off their rental property “like a Band-Aid.” She and her fiance Dylan watched from inside, huddled beneath mattresses, as the mile-wide storm popped out their plexiglass windows, pulled the laundry room off the hallway and knocked over the water tower behind their house, sucker-punching her in a rush of rapids. The ordeal left her with a severely injured leg.

What came next was a monthslong journey to put their lives back together. That meant about a year spent with Ashley's parents, then a year in temporary housing after the tornado left them with little besides a still-working cellphone, a picture of the kids that had been hanging in the living room and the Bible Ashley was baptized with.

It's the kind of story that disaster experts say will only become more common as climate change multiplies and intensifies instances of extreme weather. Academics point to a relief system in the United States that is relatively well-equipped to get aid out in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but is not designed for the long-term or the worsening conditions wrought by global warming. Stacked on top of that crisis is another intractable problem: the dire lack of affordable housing across the country.

That landscape makes people like the Princes — low-income renters — among the least prepared for the climate future that is to come. Using flooding as a case study, research from MIT has shown that disasters lead to increases in rental prices for renters with low incomes and to increases in evictions.

“People are not prepared to think about a potential disaster when they’re living in a precarious situation on a day-to-day basis,” said Smitha Rao, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who worked on the front lines of disaster relief before studying it.

After a disaster, families typically have a few options to rebuild, said Michelle Meyer, an associate professor at Texas A&M University and director of a hazard reduction and recovery research institute there. If they have homeowners’ or rental insurance, they can file a claim with the company. Then there are sources of financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which just last month changed its application process with the intention of making their grants more accessible. Meyer thinks that move will be good for vulnerable populations, but that it somewhat maintains FEMA's limited involvement in long-term rebuilding.

At the same time, families can apply for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, but applicants must meet eligibility requirements and pay the loan back. In addition, local community organizations often provide meals, clothes, temporary shelter, household supplies and other assistance, sometimes for weeks or months after the disaster. Those programs are bolstered by charitable donations that come in alongside news coverage that documents the damage.

But all those programs start to wane after a few months, and by the one- or two-year mark, many families are still nowhere near recovered. “As a public, if it’s not our community affected, we want to give money the day after,” Meyer said. That can leave nonprofits operating on a shoestring budget when the work actually begins.

Volunteers and local organizations fill the gaps with extended temporary housing and new permanent housing to replace what's been lost. But they, too, face challenges. Last year the U.S. census found that formal volunteer participation had dropped 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2021, the largest decrease the survey had on record. “The volunteers are spread thin,” Meyer said. “These communities have to kind of wait for volunteers to show up.”

In Mayfield, programs like The Hope Initiative, The Fuller Center for Housing, Samaritan's Purse and others have made progress on a few dozen homes, which families have started moving into at low or no cost. But the tornado destroyed hundreds of homes, hitting neighborhoods with mostly rentals the hardest. That means temporary housing is all the more important while they wait. “Especially for children, getting back to stable housing is the most important factor to getting them back into recovery mode and improving post-disaster,” Meyer said.

Housing was a struggle for the Princes even before the storm. Ashley says they were evicted twice without cause before moving into the home they nearly died in. It wasn’t known around town as the best area, Ashley said, but she could walk everywhere. Her grandmother had rented that house for 13 years before they moved in, so it was familiar. There was a big shade tree where the kids could run around. Everybody on that street knew everybody else.

“That’s kind of how Mayfield is,” Ashley said. “We’re a very tight-knit community.”

That's how the Princes survived: friends and family sheltered them and got Ashley the medical care she needed for the leg she injured in the storm. But it wasn't an easy road. When they moved in with Ashley's parents, they did so along with other family members and at one point 15 people were living in a two-bedroom house.

Helping families regain their independence is part of the mission of Camp Graves, where the Princes now live. It's a nonprofit helping provide temporary housing to those displaced by the tornado as well as to others in need. The sizes of the homes there vary based on family size; some live in trailers, others in container homes or in easily-assembled tiny homes with pine walls and tin roofs. Residents pay for utilities but not rent, giving them a chance to save up.

Cassy Basham, the office manager for Camp Graves, says she does everything she can to make people feel supported in spite of the challenges they have faced. Her title does little to showcase the many hats she wears, from helping families with paperwork to connecting local community advocates with resources.

But people in vulnerable populations are especially at risk of losing out on those opportunities. All of the seven families currently on the wait list for Camp Graves are Hispanic, Black, multiracial or include a single parent, Basham said, highlighting the difficulties in getting resources to those who are already at a disadvantage. It can be harder to connect with someone who doesn't speak much English, for example, or with someone who's worried about their citizenship status.

In addition, people with existing medical conditions or disabilities face greater challenges after disasters. Cayla and James Callan moved into Camp Graves a year and two months after the tornado hit, after several weeks of living with family members. For a while, they lived in a trailer, and then later in a tiny home that they say had a black mold problem. James was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2017. After the tornado, they weren't just searching for affordable housing but also for wheelchair accessible housing that could accommodate James' mobility issues.

Cayla said that it was a relief to move into Camp Graves. But their story isn't over, and she emphasized the fact that recovery doesn't end quickly. “I still feel lost about a lot of it,” she said of what they went through. They're waiting to hear whether they get approved for permanent housing.

Basham says that Camp Graves plans to continue operating well into the future to help with all kinds of temporary housing needs. After flooding hit rental housing again the summer of 2023, more families moved in. Others in the later wave of residents didn’t lose their house to the tornado but rather to eviction or other life circumstances as landlords and local businesses reshuffled properties.

“We found out real quick Mayfield was not prepared,” Basham said. “So if you have the opportunity to create a long-term recovery group or disaster preparedness group, whatever you want to call it in your community, you need to do that.”

Experts say the intersections of affordable housing and climate change can be felt everywhere. In Hawaii, some housing was decimated in the wake of wildfires. Mennonite volunteers working on housing in Mayfield described previous experiences in hurricane-prone areas of the South, where they worked to repair leaky roofs that were covered with tarps in some cases for as long as two years.

In the meantime in Mayfield, though, temporary housing is a safe haven for many. On a snowy day in January, with school canceled due to the weather, Ashley sat at the kitchen table with her kids to help them with their assignments, piles of worksheets strewn across the checked tablecloth. Her older son, Hunter, enthusiastically raced through math problems — his favorite subject, he said. His younger brother Waylon sat across from him in a polar bear hat, labeling illustrated mugs of hot chocolate with the numbers from one to 20. When Waylon drew one of the numbers backward, Ashley gently corrected him.

It's the kind of everyday moment they hope to have more of when they become homeowners — a goal they now believe is in reach. The Princes are currently waiting to find out if they will get approved for a permanent house being built by The Fuller Center for Housing, a nonprofit that helps build and repair homes for people who need them, at little or no cost to the families.

In the meantime, though, the Princes find joy in the little things. A taller artificial tree for this, the second post-tornado Christmas they've been able to celebrate. A separate bedroom for the kids and a new coffee pot. And time together.

That, after all, is the normal that matters the most.

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Associated Press journalist Joshua A. Bickel contributed to this report.

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Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/climate-and-environment

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Follow Melina Walling on X: @MelinaWalling.

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