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Home / Iowa City sawyers volunteer in tornado-ravaged Kentucky
A mom, dad and baby cowered in a bathtub as a tornado tore their house to pieces around them. When the storm passed, the bathtub was in the yard. But the family was alive.
This is just one of the stories Jason Taylor heard from the Mayfield, Ky., residents who survived an EF-3 tornado Dec. 10.
“We approached them and asked how they were doing,” Taylor said. “The stories just started coming out.”
Taylor, 42, Hannah Davey, 25, and Natalie Schoen, 23, all of Iowa City, spent six days in Mayfield in late December, volunteering as part of Team Rubicon, a California-based not-for-profit group that uses military veterans and first responders to deploy emergency response teams to disaster areas across the country.
The National Weather Service recorded at least 41 tornadoes Dec. 10 and 11, including eight in Kentucky, CBS News reported. The storms killed more than 90 people in five states, and recovery is ongoing.
Taylor, executive director of the Bur Oak Land Trust, and Davey, an AmeriCorps worker, were part of a sawyer team that used chain saws and other tools to break down fallen trees, remove hanging limbs and clear debris left by the storm. Schoen, also with AmeriCorps, is interested in disaster management and served as deputy planning chief during the Kentucky deployment.
“It was one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Taylor said this week after the trio returned home.
Taylor, a Marine Corps veteran who served a deployment in Iraq, has seen disaster zones. He remembers what Iowa City looked like after a 2006 tornado and helped with tree removal in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids after the 2020 derecho.
But the scope of demolition in Western Kentucky is hard to describe, he said.
“The tornadoes were on the ground for so long and they touched down in so many places in Kentucky,” Taylor said. “Some areas were perfectly fine, then you’d come upon an area with massive destruction.”
The sawyer teams have variable work, depending on the site, Taylor said. In some cases, they’d remove one tree from the roof of a house that was mostly intact. At another site, they’d clear fallen trees from a road so a bulldozer could come in and remove the pile of smithereens that used to be a house.
On one 4-acre parcel, a man lost hundreds if not thousands of trees, Taylor said. Volunteers cleared another family’s pond of debris so about 100 farm animals — without a barn or a fence — could have a place to get water.
After a long day’s work, Team Rubicon volunteers slept at a Baptist church in nearby Hardin, Ky.
“They took out all pews and furniture and set up cots — 50 people in one room and 20 in another,” Taylor said. Local groups would bring in meals at night and Team Rubicon rented a shower trailer.
Team Rubicon’s deployment in Kentucky is scheduled to last through Feb. 15, Taylor said, but the duration depends on how many people request assistance. Taylor is considering going back down to help in early February if tree work still is needed.
Team Rubicon works with adult volunteers of all ages and all skill sets. To find out more about deployments or to donate, go to the organization’s website.
The Bur Oak Land Trust was established in 1978 to protect and conserve natural areas for future generations. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit protects nearly 900 acres of Iowa land and manages critical habitat on 500 of those acres through its conservation-focused AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps is a national service program which aims to support local communities by meeting critical needs.
Bur Oak started offering chain saw academies in Eastern Iowa in May to teach people basic sawyer skills, including cutting, evaluating environmental hazards, developing a cutting plan and safely operating a chain saw.
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