Some call this Kentucky city the “Heart of America”. Now her international community is picking up the pieces after deadly tornado

By Nick Valencia, Jade Gordon and Christina Maxouris, CNN

When Leyda Becker heard a weather alert on her phone in the early in the morning of December 11 she wasn’t surprised. Tornado alerts in Bowling Green are not uncommon and often don’t mean much.

But with her husband and two children, she took refuge in the closet. Shortly after 2 a.m., the high winds subsided. Becker glanced outside, but in total darkness she couldn’t see anything and fell asleep again.

It wasn’t until several hours later that daylight revealed the devastation. the deadly tornado left in its wake.

“A street behind us, the roofs of almost all the houses have been removed. We were very close, ”she said. But Becker considers herself one of the lucky ones.

At least fifteen people have died in Warren County, Kentucky, as a consequence of the tornado. A 16th person, a 67-year-old man, has died of cardiac arrest while cleaning up the storm, according to the county coroner. At least eight of the victims were children.

Most people who lost their lives were in the county seat of Bowling Green, a vibrant and close-knit community where the inhabitants are proud by announcing that it was recently named one of America’s Best Places to Live Money magazine. It is home to immigrants and refugees from all over the world, including Bosnians who fled war in the 1990s, and residents of Myanmar and El Salvador.

Most recently, Bowling Green has welcomed more than 190 Afghans, according to Becker, who serves as a liaison with the city’s international communities and is herself an immigrant from Venezuela.

“We have pretty much every continent except Antarctica,” Becker told CNN. “I met someone from all over here in a little town in south central Kentucky.”

As the community now rallies around those who have lost family members and loved ones, and whose homes were blown to the ground by high winds, those who survived are still in shock but consider themselves lucky. And they say they’re eager to help rebuild the city and its spirit.

Two families killed in a neighborhood

Most of the victims of the Bowling Green tornado lived in the Moss Meadows neighborhood. It is home to families from Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, China, Japan, and others born and raised in Kentucky. About 20 homes were destroyed, homeowners association president Jason Nichols told CNN.

Two neighborhood families, who lived a few doors apart on Moss Creek Avenue, were killed. Rachael and Steven Brown were with their four children – Nariah Cayshelle, 16, Nolynn, 8, Nyles, 4, and Nyssa, 13 – and Rachael’s mother, Victoria Smith, when the tornado ravaged their home. All seven were killed.

“They were very family oriented,” Rachael Brown’s aunt Dornicho Jackson McGee told CNN. The family had moved from Madisonville, Ky., Two years ago for a job opportunity, McGee said. “They loved their family. They loved their children.

Down the street, five people from the Besic family, who had emigrated from Bosnia, were found near their homes the day after the tornado. Among those killed in the family were two young girls, police said. Police identified the victims as Alisa Besic, an adult female, Selmir, a young man, Elma, a young woman, and Samantha and Alma, the two infants.

“It’s devastating,” Bowling Green Police spokesman Ronnie Ward told CNN. “It is difficult to understand and understand how this happened.”

Erdin Zukic, whose parents left Bosnia and now run a trucking company in Bowling Green, said thousands of Bosnian people live in the city. Between 2011 and 2016, the county’s immigrant population grew by more than 85%, according to a study. Almost 15% of the county’s immigrant population was originally from Bosnia.

“It’s kind of like the heart of America,” Zukic said of Bowling Green. “America was founded on the ideals that everyone was born equal and that everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue happiness, and Bowling Green truly embodies that. “

Down the street from the Brown and Besic families, Concepción Serrano’s house has been swept away. He thanked God for being alive.

The 51-year-old from El Salvador hid in a closet and came out with only a few scratches on his legs – after debris fell on him. All night after the storm he could hear people screaming and screaming, he told CNN. He got out and started to help, pulling a young child who was trapped under the rubble to safety.

While speaking to CNN, Serrano pointed to the homes of the people who were razed and the neighbors who were killed.

A day after the storm, Becker called friends and community members to check on their condition. A local leader of the Koranic community, an ethnic group in Myanmar, was in a local hospital as an interpreter for a family who suffered an accident. A local Congolese leader, father of six, told him his house had been reduced to scraps of wood.

“Their lives have been spared, but they no longer have a home,” Becker said.

‘Mom I’m about to die’

In another part of Bowling Green, Zukic discovered that a high school friend had lost his 27-year-old brother, Cory Scott, in the storm.

Cole Scott told CNN his brother was killed while sleeping at his home.

“The story of what happened has given me peace,” he told CNN. He said a neighbor informed him that the tornado swept the house away in the blink of an eye. “At first I wondered if he was scared or hurt, or if someone came in sooner, would he be okay? But I knew it had happened so quickly that he hadn’t felt a thing.

His brother was laughing contagiously, he said.

“He’s always been there for me. We did everything together, ”he said.

Throughout the city, it’s hard to miss the devastation, residents say.

The home of Bowling Green resident Mevludin “Mesa” Arnaut, 67, was partially destroyed by the tornado. The roof of his kitchen was ripped off, but the damage was minimal compared to others, he said.

In another part of town, Chelcie Belcher is raising funds through a GoFundMe for his brother, single father of a 6 year old daughter and a 7 year old son who lost his home.

“I just think, what do we do now?” She said, adding that she was grateful that all of her family were alive and safe. “I’m crying, because, what if it was me?” What if it was my family?

Crying outside her destroyed home in another part of town, Latonya Webb told CNN last week that she saw people around her die the night of the tornado.

“There were so many people crying for help, I could hear people praying and I could hear people say, ‘Lord help us,’” she said. “Before I lost connection, I was on the phone with my mom and I said to her, ‘Mom, I’m about to die.'”

The challenges for moving forward

Despite the losses suffered, a sense of resilience and community permeates the city.

Local donation centers that were set up were overflowing with food and clothing, some residents told CNN. The neighbors help each other to collect what is left. Others treat themselves to meals.

“It was an explosion of support,” Zukic said. “I just know that when we come back we will come back stronger and the community will only flourish from here.”

In such a diverse community, one of the challenges in giving affected residents the help they need is the language barrier, Ward told CNN with the Police Department.

“Communication is a problem,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is get the word out, ‘this is where you can get help, this is the kind of help that’s going to be offered,’ and just general information. on how you can get through. “

Becker, who last week communicated with various populations in the city, said many feared something like this could happen again.

Many have asked her if they are safe and if a tornado is likely to strike again, she said.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said. “But, you know, Bowling Green is an amazing place. Hopefully we come out of it stronger and with a lot of lessons learned, and rebuild and make sure everyone is taken care of. “

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CNN’s Caroll Alvarado and Jenn Selva contributed to this report.

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