National News

In One Town, Survivors Cherish Life As Best Christmas Present

‘We’re trying to stay in the Christmas spirit around here’

MAYFIELD, Ky. — Outside the courthouse near the center of town, a tall Christmas tree decorated with colored lights and red ribbon stands in stark contrast to the destruction all around it.

Outside the courthouse near the center of town, a tall Christmas tree decorated with colored lights and red ribbon stands in stark contrast to the destruction all around it.

The tree was put up last week, residents say, for the kids to see, but also to provide a measure of hope to a community trying to salvage what they can and move forward after a deadly tornado tore through the town on Dec. 10.

[Related: Mass Goes On in Makeshift Quarters in Hard-Hit Kentucky Town]

“We’re trying to stay in the Christmas spirit around here. We’re not going to let what happened ruin our Christmas,” said Mayfield resident Curtis Elko.

On Saturday, Dec. 18, Elko was out in front of his house loading a U-Haul truck with whatever he could save from his home, which was crushed by a fallen tree. His neighborhood was in the direct path of the tornado, only about a mile from the candle factory where eight people died.

Elko, his wife, three kids, and their dog rode out the storm in a crawl space and got out unscathed.

Looking ahead, he said waking up on Christmas morning with his family will be extra special, given the fate they could have suffered.

[Related: ‘No One Expected This Outpouring of Support’]

“You’re going to cherish every minute of it,” Elko said. “I’m going to cherish every moment that I get with my kids from now on. I’m never going to take anything for granted, that’s for sure.”

Elko and his family will celebrate Christmas in a new apartment in Dublin, Ky., about 15 minutes from their storm-swept home.

He said he will get a new Christmas tree to decorate, adding that he “couldn’t be happier” that somehow all of the presents are accounted for.

Other Mayfield residents, too, noted the significance of being with family this Christmas after what they endured, but they recognized that many in their community were not so lucky. Mayfield was one of the communities hardest hit by the storm. People were killed, many homes there are unsalvageable, and the downtown area is in ruins.

It’s a reality that weighs heavily on Beatriz Valero. On Saturday, she and her husband were unpacking the contents of their pickup truck into a brick home — unharmed by the storm — where they will stay temporarily. It stands across the street from the Elkos’ home.

The Valeros’ nearby Mayfield home was destroyed. After the storm, the only room left standing was the bathroom where the couple and their 8-year-old granddaughter had taken refuge.

They don’t have a Christmas tree. Instead, Valero said she wants to put Christmas lights on the wall in the shape of a tree and put the salvaged presents beneath it. It’s an effort to keep the Christmas spirit alive for her grandchildren, but she said it’ll be difficult for her to celebrate.

“For me it’s going to be a sad Christmas,” Valero said. “I’m thankful because we’re alive, but some other people lost family members, so that’s going to be hard.”

  • The building used for the former Resurrection Parish was destroyed in the Kentucky storm, so the community assembled in a new place — a 20-by-20-foot steel shed that days earlier was a weight room. (Photos: John Lavenburg)
  • Beatriz Valero stands outside of her temporary home in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 18. Her nearby home was destroyed by the Dec. 10 tornado that ravaged the city.
  • The front of Curtis Elko's house in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 18 after a Dec. 10 tornado shattered the windows and caused the tree to fall through the roof. While they figure out their next steps, Elko and his family are moving to an apartment in the nearby town of Dublin, Ky.
  • The storm shattered the 50-year-old church’s tall glass panels that had reached to the roof at the front and side entrances. Now the Catholic community assembled in a new place for Mass.


Next door, Chase Gregory leaned on the back of his car waiting for an insurance adjuster to determine whether or not his daughter’s home could be salvaged. Gregory and his wife live just outside of town, and they drove to be with their daughter just before the storm hit. He hid in a bathroom in the house; his wife and daughter sheltered in the cellar. They all made it out OK.

They will celebrate Christmas at his undamaged home in another part of town, grateful to be together.

“Those that know the true purpose of Christmas, and what it’s about, know that presents are always secondary,” Gregory said. “But it’s even more secondary knowing that we walked out of that unscathed.”